England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Universities in crisis: Kick the market out for fully-funded, quality education!

By Ivan Bonsall, Socialist Alternative Brighton

The recent strike wave has seen university workers fight for decent pay, as wages have fallen dramatically in real-terms over the last decade. All five campus trade unions – UCU, UNISON, Unite, GMB and EIS in Scotland, have all been fighting to force Vice Chancellors or Principals to pay their workforces properly, with UCU and UNISON members taking strike action.

But universities are not immune to inflation. Many are facing severe funding issues with a reliance on the £9,250 tuition fee, or an equivalent grant in some parts of the UK, which is now worth a fraction of what it was when first introduced.

Some universities, mainly prestigious Russell Group institutions, have been able to recruit international students paying massive and increasing fees to offset the loss of income, or secured lucrative research grants, mainly from big businesses looking for cheap research to make a profit. For many universities, income has fallen while gas bills, equipment, maintenance costs and other essentials have gone through the roof.

Who suffers? Both students and staff. Students receive poorer education from poorly-treated staff, as costs are cut and the quality and quantity of lectures and seminars are scaled back. Student support for the lonely, vulnerable, and those needing disability or mental health support is reduced, and waiting lists for counselling sessions grow.

Meanwhile, staff are told there’s no money for pay rises matching inflation, with the recently imposed ‘offer’ worth between 5% and 8%, being “at a level which many employers will find financially challenging.”

How to end the universities’ crisis

Socialists in the unions and student movement say we cannot solve the funding crisis by raising fees, piling more debt onto students. Instead, we need to fight to take the wealth off the super-rich for fully-funded education available for all.

Higher education is a public service, but there’s a massive difference between the kind of public service the ruling class wants, and one in the interests of working people. The rich and powerful want a way of educating their own people, to maintain their system and manage the ruthless exploitation of workers most efficiently. Socialists want an education system that offers life-changing opportunities to all, without debt, or three or more years of poverty to endure before graduation. Free education for all could play a crucial role in developing green technology, improving healthcare and much more.

In reality, our universities are not run as genuine public bodies. They are partially autonomous organisations, overseen by unelected governing bodies, with members appointed by their mates (invariably lawyers, accountants and businesspeople), and Vice Chancellors appointed to do as they’re told, in exchange for vast six-figure salaries. But the government, through the Office for Students, still interferes when it suits, such as consulting on how to apply Minimum Service Levels to outlaw effective industrial action, like UCU’s recent marking boycott, or hypocritically encouraging “free speech” for bigots, misogynists and transphobes.

Education for the elite?

This government is actively looking at ways to scale back the number of UK school and college-leavers going into higher education. The last thing Tory MPs want is for public money to be spent on educating those from poorer backgrounds, especially if they cannot pay their fees back because wages are so low. Universities providing attractive or innovative programmes are attacked for running “Mickey Mouse courses”, since all the Tories care about is higher education as training for jobs which can turn a profit, rather than assisting students in expanding their understanding of the world.

Socialist Alternative fights for unity between university workers and students as the best way to fight for better pay and conditions, and for a decent education. We demand a quality learning environment, with students free of debt and poverty. We fight for a fully-funded, joined-up system, controlled and managed by democratically elected representatives and available to all. 

Socialist Alternative says:

  • No to tuition fees – abolish all feesand debt!
  • We need a living grant for all further and higher education students, and those on apprenticeships!
  • A real pay rise for university workers – unions must develop a fighting strategy to win!
  • Democratic control of higher education – university management to be elected regularly with all leaders subject to recall and paid an average workers’ wage
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