As The Daily Telegraph reported, “the new legislation was designed to make it easier for private colleges, including big American education firms, to set up new universities in Britain.” Universities Minister David Willetts wished to ‘level the playing field’ in tertiary education, restraining public universities in the medium term while giving private providers a leg-up into the system.
The Coalition gambled that the storm of protest triggered by the tripling of tuition fees would satisfy students’ appetite for conflict, leaving the way clear for it to implement radical and far-reaching reform of the sector. It underestimated the ability of students to grasp what these reforms represented, and their ability to organise and agitate against them.
Students realised that by permitting private providers into the university sector, the government was allowing predatory businesses to undercut established public universities. As private competitors muscled into the market, a full scale battle for students would have been triggered. The most prestigious new establishments would be able to charge stratospheric prices for entrants, and the more metropolitan universities – those located in the cities that traditionally attract more working class students – would be forced into a race to the bottom as private colleges offered bargain-basement courses at bargain-basement prices. The right to a quality education would become just another commodity, readily available to the rich and forever out of reach to the poorest in society.
A foretaste of the incoming system was provided by A.C. Grayling’s New College of Humanities, which promises an Oxbridge-standard education for the astronomical cost of £18,000 a year. This College was founded not on the principle that education is a public good that every member of society is entitled to, but on the market principle that education is something to be purchased.
Private providers would also have been able to enter the university system by more insidious means. The White Paper promised to relax restrictions on degree validation agreements, thereby allowing businesses to strike deals with existing universities. Private companies would be able to produce their own degree programmes, have them approved by an established university, and sell them to various Further Education Colleges at a profit. Such a system promised to turn university courses into mass-produced products and public education institutions to business lackeys.
Opposition to these proposals came from all quarters. Independent experts stressed that the government was flying blind into unknown territory by unleashing private competition in the university sector. Students railed against the idea that companies could hijack popular courses that public universities could no longer afford to provide. Many were aghast to learn that the plans would allow private companies access to the student loan scheme, thus allowing big business to get their hands on public funds. Lecturers were incensed by the notion that their contracts would bind them to validate outside degree programmes, and perhaps even to lead seminars on foreign campuses where such programmes were to be taught.
However, it was action rather than words that defeated the government’s privatisation agenda. 10,000 students marched on November 9th against the proposals, and in the weeks that followed dozens of universities played host to student occupations. Lecturers launched an offensive in the national press, with an open letter to the Telegraph attracting the signatures of nearly 500 professors.
This victory represents a battle won, but the war continues. The government has postponed the plans, rather than ejecting them completely, and the remaining sections of the HE White Paper will continue to make their way through the Commons, without the need for primary legislation to enact them. Liam Burns, President of the NUS, underlined the scale of the challenge to come, and told students that “there are many reasons for us not to celebrate.”
What can be celebrated, though, is the role that direct action and public pressure have played in the campaign against the reforms. Students and activists opposing government measures in new forums, such as occupations, flash mobs and social media, have achieved tangible results. By bringing the fight against the Coalition onto territory they are unfamiliar with, opponents to their plans gain an advantage over the Tory propaganda machine. Activists campaigning to protect other public services would do well to heed this lesson.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog