Education goes to market

Issue section: 

The Tories' White Paper on higher education will enable companies to profit from education

The Higher Education and Research Bill and its accompanying White Paper, working its way through parliament now, represents an attempt to turn the English Higher Education sector into a full blown neoliberal market on the US model.

For-profit private providers will be able to quickly and easily set up as universities, recruit unlimited numbers of students and claim £9,000 per student in tuition fees. Regulation will be ripped up and simplified in the interests of these corporations and at the expense of students, staff and academic freedom.

Limits on student numbers have already gone. The bill will allow tuition fees to rise, initially in line with inflation but potentially far higher. Universities will aim to teach on the cheap, triggering a race to the bottom. The aim is to create a profitable industry in selling degrees, underwritten by the taxpayer and students themselves.

The changes made to English HE will quickly affect the rest of the UK. For example, the Welsh Assembly will have to decide whether to pay tuition fees for students in these English for-profit institutions and Scottish universities will introduce the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which will measure neither teaching nor “excellence” — the Cambridge University vice-chancellor wrote that it is a mere “kite-mark” with criteria that private providers can easily meet.

The White Paper ramps up the assault on the sector from its Green Paper stage, despite some 600 detailed critiques by universities, Royal Societies and sector bodies that slammed its proposals. The only supporter of the bill is the for-profit sector waiting in the wings.

The Tories’ cheerleaders in the press talk about “challenger institutions” and “student choice”. In the US this model has led to the Trump University — a for-profit education company that offered courses in entrepreneurship and real estate and is now defunct following prosecutions for fraud and misleading and aggressive recruitment tactics, leaving thousands of students with worthless qualifications.

Here in Britain we have seen the scandal of Individual Learning Accounts, where the private sector was allowed to offer government-backed “training” only for the scheme to collapse in fraud a year after it began. The Public Accounts Committee said that existing for-profits are poorly regulated, so students have no real guarantee that their degree will be worth anything. The HE Bill is designed to weaken that regulation even further.

This next stage in the privatisation of our universities is building on years of commercialisation and attacks on academic freedom. The Prevent agenda is symbolic of a university system that is increasingly being told to police thought while maximising profit. The academic freedom that the Tories hate is illustrated by scientists who criticise their drugs policy on the basis of evidence, or expose Volkswagen over diesel emissions.


To perform this task academics need jobs and labs — usually funded by the government or business. Academic freedom is simply the protection from victimisation for speaking out. The HE Bill proposes to dismantle the two main state mechanisms (HEFCE and Privy Council involvement) that protect this freedom.

UK universities currently have an annual turnover of over £30 billion. But the sector has seen a rapid and systematic shift away from a traditional model of research driven teaching, with small class sizes and discussions about big ideas, towards a model where few teaching staff do much research, many have very insecure contracts, and the ratio of students to staff is very high. At the same time there has been a systematic rise in the proportion of budgets spent on new buildings and corporate projects rather than staff — from 30 percent in the 1970s to 45 percent now.

Students see their lecturers less and less, and find themselves taught by postgraduate students only a few years older than themselves.

Students are not benefiting from these reforms. Both overseas and UK students are paying exorbitant fees and rents for the privilege of studying. Meanwhile staff see their pay and conditions deteriorate year after year.

The White Paper and HE Bill are coming at a time when industrial action is back on the university campuses. UCU members are currently involved in a series of rolling 24-hour strikes over pay and inequality, targeting key dates in the university calendar or timed to co-ordinate with planned action by teachers, members of the NUT, on 5 July. These strikes follow a 48-hour strike across Britain on 25 and 26 May.

The dispute is about pay — a lousy 1.1 percent pay offer while vice-chancellors’ pay rockets by over 6 percent a year. But the dispute also centres on the shocking 12 percent gender pay gap on the campuses, amounting to an average £6,000 difference between male and female members of staff, and the spread of casual contracts, including zero-hour contracts, throughout the higher education sector. These two issues were important motivators for staff in the recent 48-hour strike.

Organising from the bottom up, the London Region of UCU called themed strike days. On the first day UCU members marched on UCEA (the employers’ organisation) protesting against the gender pay gap. On day two a protest against casualisation centred on London Metropolitan University (see more above). This model was copied in many areas across Britain.

UCU is the main campus union for lecturers. The union’s congress saw a sharp debate about the nature of the action necessary to gain a victory after years of an effective pay freeze. It’s clear that a serious stepping up of the dispute in the shape of escalating strike action and the use of action short of a strike (ASOS), such as a marking boycott, in the autumn will be necessary to win.

In recent pay and pension disputes in the HE sector, employers have used punitive pay docking against the ASOS tactic. The union’s failure to respond with national strike action was disastrous. UCU branches facing 50 or 100 percent pay docking were left to fight alone. This can’t be allowed to happen again. Activists voted, again, at congress to meet pay docking with national strikes across the union.

Opposition to the White Paper is growing. The Convention for Higher Education, an alliance of academics and UCU activists, has already produced an Alternative White Paper (AWP) that makes the principled case for public higher education.

This campaign is gaining wide support from across the sector, and the AWP was recently launched in parliament with the support of the Labour Party and the Greens, and with speakers from the SNP and Liberal Democrats. There are plans for a national Third Convention on the future of higher education on 15 October, and local launch meetings for the AWP are already under way on the campuses.


At the UCU’s recent congress general secretary Sally Hunt announced a joint demonstration with UCU and the NUS planned for 5 November under the banner “Save our futures”. This would be the first joint mobilisation by UCU and the NUS since the famous Millbank protest in 2010 that launched the tumultuous student movement against fees and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance in further education.

We could have a situation in the autumn where we have a developing campaign against the White Paper/HE Bill, a national demonstration by staff and students, and industrial action over pay. This has the potential to be an explosive mixture.

Back in 2010 the student protests and the strike wave over pensions, kicked off by UCU, PCS, NUT and the ATL, played a major role in galvanising opposition to austerity and opened the way to the mass pensions strikes by more than 2.5 million public sector workers in November 2011. Protests and action on the campuses can play an important role again.

The attacks on higher education have to be seen in the context of the wider assault on the public sector in general. Teachers are battling against Tory plans for the forced academisation of schools in England (and have won a partial victory). In further education “area reviews” could see the number of colleges slashed and conditions attacked.

What is needed is a serious, broad-based campaign to defend education from the cradle to the grave. It is great to have Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Labour making pledges about reversing Tory policy once in office. Corbyn spoke at last year’s UCU “Cradle to Grave” conference, and shadow ministers Gordon Marsden and Lucy Powell have been prominent at events in defence of teacher education, further education and at the launch of the AWP.

But staff and students in higher education can’t sit and wait for an election.

Working class students are being priced out of higher education. What happens to them when the fee cap is lifted? Universities like London Met are set to go bankrupt, while Russell Group universities with shocking figures on recruiting working class and ethnic minority students are encouraged to continue with elitist recruitment policies. But even wealthy universities like University College London and King’s College London are gambling on continuous expansion of student numbers and high fees. If boom turns to bust, it won’t just be London Met in crisis.

Activists in higher education can learn from the teachers’ and junior doctors’ disputes — industrial action and the threat of future action, combined with a broad-based political mobilisation, can achieve results. Whatever the outcome of the junior doctors’ dispute, it has successfully mobilised members while winning over public opinion and maintained it throughout the strikes. Campaigning by the NUT and parents has dented the Tories’ plans for forced academies and knocked back testing of four year olds with the “too young to test” campaign.

A similar strategy based on hard-hitting industrial action alongside mass political campaigning has the potential to defeat the assault on higher education.


If staff and students can organise and mobilise together, if the “academy” can be drawn into active opposition to the White Paper, then the Tories’ plans can be stopped. This government is prone to U-turns. It can make one more. The planned protest in the autumn called by UCU and NUS is an enormous opportunity to mobilise opposition to the White Paper and to pile political pressure on the employers in the pay dispute.

The protest can act as a rallying point for staff and students across FE and HE; it can and should be a massive show of strength and the kick-start of a campaign to defend the whole of education.

A victory in the current UCU pay dispute can also play a massive part in defending HE. A strong UCU with a victory under its belt can play a pivotal role in defending the whole sector. But that means activists have to organise to make sure that the protest in November is huge and that this time the unions’ leadership uses all the weapons in the armoury to win fair pay, including escalating strikes and ASOS — and fights to win.


The jobs massacre at London Metropolitan University and the victimisation of key UCU reps David Hardman and Mark Campbell offers us a stark vision of the future for everyone in higher education if the HE Bill becomes law and the present dispute fails to break through.

London Met, a university famous for giving working class and black and ethnic minority students a shot at higher education, is being shrunk (the CASS art faculty buildings have already been sold) to a single campus at Holloway Road, north London, and prepared for potential closure or privatisation. Full time lecturers are being replaced by an army of hourly-paid lecturers on zero-hours contracts.

Yet across the road from the main building in Holloway, new student flats are going up. Will London Met be sold off and become the UK’s first new for-profit university?


» Read the Alternative White Paper available at and get printed copies to use at lobbies and protests in your area.
» Organise public meetings on campuses and in the community. Our campaign must be on every university campus, at every FE college and every school and sixth form college that teaches A-levels.
» Lobby MPs, councillors and mayors. We need to be knocking on MPs’ doors in their constituencies and taking the argument into our communities across the UK.
» Get involved with the HE Convention. In the autumn on 15 October the campaign is planning to hold the Third Convention for Higher Education to redouble our efforts against the HE Bill.
» Mobilise for big demonstrations. UCU congress voted to call demonstrations during the second reading of the HE Bill. The NUS and the UCU are calling a joint demonstration in the autumn.

Michael Bradley is a national organiser for the SWP and Sean Wallis is on the UCU NEC (personal capacity)