Universities Inc.

Courtauld academics picketing on the first day of the strike.

The attack on teachers’ pensions, the cause of the strike, is merely part of a larger system under which the universities have been increasingly marketised and privatised, with dire consequences for students and staff alike.

Universities have been thrown into artificial competition with one another, not just over the recruitment of students but also over research and teaching in a blatant divide-and-rule strategy. The Research Excellence Framework is the vastly expensive and unwieldy system that audits our research by panels of experts (who may also be our rivals) which rank pieces of our writing. This has unsurprisingly encouraged a good deal of timidity and convention in our research ‘outputs’, as they are so tellingly known, as if academics were factories. The results determine which university departments get the most research money, and the consequences of slipping even one rung down the ladder can be dramatic cuts. Of course, as soon as you tie audit to reward and punishment, you can forget about the accuracy of the results, as everyone puts vast resources into trying to game the system. When I try to describe this state surveillance of research to lecturers who work abroad, I am met with open-mouthed disbelief at its absurdities and its basic attack on our freedom to think and write as we wish.

The upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework, which promises to do the same for teaching, is actually an audit of factors such as employability, and is likely to mean once again that huge energy and expense will go into massaging figures, rather than concentrating on what really makes for good teaching. It’s telling that the so-called Office for Students, which will oversee this system, excludes any representation of—students!

The fees regime—the main architect of which, I am ashamed to say, is Lord Browne, the chair of the Courtauld board of governors—was a crucial piece of this system. It was designed to drive students into long-term debt, making you more pliant and conformist subjects; to get you to think of yourselves as customers, not students; to pitch the universities into competition on price; and to free the government (which was facing the global crisis caused by the bankers’ greed and corruption) of the cost of your education. The outcome was disastrous, and a failure in most of its aims. It succeeded only in causing you great misery, stress and debt. It is, if anything, more expensive to the government than the previous system, and is not an effective price system since almost all colleges charge the maximum rate.

What did the universities do with the fee money that flooded in? Did they spend it on student bursaries, or improving student-teacher ratios or buying books? Not very much. Or on academic wages? No, these have been forced down year-on-year so that since the financial crisis we have had an effective 15% pay cut. It did get spent on new layers of professional managers, who are paid far more than academics, and on glitzy new buildings, many of dubious utility. The Courtauld’s renovation project, on which tens of millions of pounds will be spent, is a symptom of this wider picture.

The basic ambition is to move us close to the US model, where many universities are private companies, and stand or fall on business grounds alone. UK universities can now go bust: what will happen to their students if they do?—no one knows. Never mind that the US model of state loans and private enterprise has been the scene of extraordinary dysfunction and scandal as Trump University—among many others—charged students extortionate fees for useless degrees, leaving many people unqualified and drowning in debt.

Universities used to be run mostly by those who taught in them. Education was thought to be a good in itself, aside from its use in serving business. Perhaps, it was thought, a well-educated populace had something to do with a healthy democracy. Perhaps people’s lives and their relations with others were enriched by learning. Under the emerging model, education is valuable only if it is of use to business, and must itself become a business, its students must become customers and debt-slaves, its teachers as cheap and casualised as possible. So when the strikers here say that their dispute is about the university as a whole—and is as much about students as teachers—this is some of what they mean.

This piece is part of The Courtauldian's coverage of the UCU Strike which began on 22 February 2018. View our Facebook page and Instagram account for more coverage.

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