Higher Education is in Crisis

Posted in Uncategorized by Wit on June 1, 2010

Higher Education has, over the last year, been steadily and increasingly heading toward utter crisis. It is clear that this point has now been reached. Total cuts to university budgets will be over £1.5 billion. It is clear that the disaster set in motion by New Labour is being accelerated by the Conservative Coalition.

The Effects:

These are all stories reported by the BBC during the last five days:

Due to underfunding by Government, it is estimated that at least 250,000 university applicants will be refused a place for economic reasons. Spending cuts have reduced extra university places at a time when there has been a huge surge in demand. The number of applicants not getting a place will have doubled in two years.

Meanwhile, Colleges across Britain are suffering from the huge cuts to funding, from decreased student numbers (due in part to cuts), and from competition from new academies. Why the Conservative Coalition are investing in new buildings and new school colleges and not in exisiting facilities is certainly a cause for bafflement.

In response the Government has suggested (as did New Lab before them), condensing courses into two years. This from the party that, in recent memory, bemoaned “mickey mouse courses”. It seems, when the choice is between HE and big business, the Tories are happy to make fools of us all. UCU has emphatically voted against these “sweatshop” courses, but unfortunately that won’t stop a host of related trends, such as the move toward “distance learning”, “part-time” courses and other such thrift measures, which speak loudly of a lack of Government funding for Universities and of a lack of financial support for increasingly beleaguered students.*

As a result primarily of the financial meltdown, but also of other smaller factors – increased competition, for example – the Golden Promise that HE guarantees better employment has dissolved. At the same time that tuition fees have massively increased (and are set to increase more this year), students are finding that they are unable to find jobs. Not only is this because of a lack of jobs, and a flooded job market, but students who aspire to careers such as journalism, publishing, even the police and teaching, are increasingly finding that they are forced to gain extensive work experience, or to work in underpaid trainee or casual positions. In Higher Education this is also manifest in the current policy of covering teaching-hours gaps with causal-contract work, rather than employing new lecturers. As a result many Postdoc students are finding that they cannot find proper academic jobs, and are instead being paid salaries around £5000 per annum for “casual” work. As a result, they are forced to undercut their own labour. They are not only being steadily proletarianized, many of them are actually living in poverty. Whilst teaching seminars to perhaps 30 or 40 students and giving course lectures to perhaps 100 (each student paying £3500 for a years study), they are making ends-meet only by undergoing the humiliation of applying for housing benefits – a long, arduous and unrewarding process.

Is it any surprise, then, to hear it reported that calls to a university helpline have increased by 25% over the last year? My only fear is that the next story will report a 25% increase in suicide rates amongst academics. I’m not joking.

Finally, then, is it any wonder that University and College staff are considering a national strike? The only wonder is that it hasn’t happened already. Above and beyond the complaints already listed, staff and students across the country are watching in horror as decades of hardwork is being swiftly destroyed. Courses are closing at many universities, including at Lancaster. Whole departments, even extremely successful ones, are being closed down – most notoriously in the case of Middlesex Philosophy department. Other departments are being merged into incongrous joint departments, such as the infamous merger of Politics, Philosophy and Religious studies at Lancaster. As senior academics retire they are no longer being replaced, whilst new staff aren’t being taken on, leaving departments across the coutnry increasingly reliant on under-experienced and underpaid causal labour. Those who do have full lecturerships are finding themselves without job security, and increasingly pressured by new “impact” criteria, reduced funding, more paperwork, more teaching work, and less support.

Students don’t have it any better, finding themselves with increased tutition fees, yet less choice, less quality, less time, more pressure. Postgraduate students, meanwhile, are being used with open cynicism as cash-cows, following Government limits on undergrad student numbers. Whilst their fees are massively increasing, the minuimum wages paid by jobs they work to try to fund studies are not. Quite frankly, the fees will reach a natural limit because very soon students will not actually be able to pay. Indeed, this is already the case, to a large degree. Friends doing PhDs are working three or four jobs and only scraping by. Research time is pushed to the margins. Meanwhile, one of their jobs may well be teaching two classes of undergraduate seminars. Despire the increased fees paid by undergraduates, postgrad teaching assistants are not paid enough to even nearly cover their own fees – in effect, their wages are worth less than nothing. Meanwhile, preparation for seminars, for which, in reality, they are often not paid, eats into their remaining research time.

It really is past time, then, for an active and forceful student protest against this Government induced crisis. It is past time for students and staff to recognise their common problems and to engage in collective action. We need strikes, and we need them now. We need more than strikes. Where is the NUS in all of this?? It is too busy pandering to politicians in exchange for future parliamentary work experience. As students we need to look to UCU and co-ordinate with lecturers’ actions. We also need to stand on our own feet and co-ordinate effective student protest. It is plain that NUS is no longer a forum for this. We will have to tear it down. It is irrelevant. What is relevant is student solidarity, solidarity with lecturers and other staff, and solidarity with all those workers who find themselves similarly to be paying for the Bankers’ crisis.

Go go go go!


*Note here, that UK courses are already amongst the shortest in the world. Soon European and and US universities will no longer take our degrees seriously (despite Bologna-attempts). (Avg timescales: UK: UG 3-4, Masters 1-2, PhD 3-4; Elsewhere: UG: 3-5, M: 2-5, PhD 4-8+; cumulatively, an English student may earn a PhD after 7 years, whilst elsewhere in Europe and USA it will be at least 9 years, and quite probably a good deal longer. Correct me if I’m wrong).


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