Austerity and Higher Education

The case of the United Kingdom

University reform in the UK can be understood in light of the following dilemma: the system must expand if it is to meet the demand for skill in the labour market, but the more it expands the less it fulfills its other major function of reproducing social division.

This is crucial because the transformation of higher education being implemented under the rubric of austerity indicates that austerity is not in the first instance about cutting spending. The evidence of past austerity projects demonstrates that cuts are a means rather than the primary objective, which is social engineering. In the case of higher education, a coalition government has cut state funding for universities while raising fees, on the pretext of debt consolidation. However, the major effects will be firstly to reorganise the system along market lines, re-pivoting the relationship between the student and the institution as a consumer-enterprise one, and secondly to reproduce social divisions on a new basis.

The coalition’s policies are based on a report by Lord Browne, a former chief executive of BP with no experience in higher education. The practice of hiring businessmen to reorganise the public sector runs deep in the neoliberal DNA. Since it is assumed that everything should be run like a competitive enterprise, who could know more about this than businessmen?

The immediate rationale for the policies adopted by the government was the exigent need to save money in order to consolidate the nation’s debts. In the first Comprehensive Spending Review, the Chancellor deducted £4.2 billion from the budget for higher education. The money to expand the system would have to come from fees. However, as is generally the case with austerity, this merely built on and accelerated tendencies already in evidence. For the Browne report was initiated under the previous New Labour administration and it extended the logic of existing practices and legislation.

Higher education in the UK has been through three epochal transformations. The Robbins Report of 1963, recommending the immediate expansion of universities and the opening of places to all based on merit, inaugurated the era of the university as a mass, rather than elite, institution. The Dearing Report of 1997, proposing the implementation of tuition fees, initiated the first moves toward consumer-funded, rather than tax-funded, tuition. And the Browne Report, building on existing moves toward “marketisation,” hit the accelerator.

The reforms inaugurated after the Dearing Report followed the mantra of competition and pricing. It was assumed that competition between universities for consumers would produce better educational outcomes, while the best way of rationing access to university was a pricing system that emulated “the market.” The immediate rationale, as expressed in the New Labour manifesto in 1997, was that the expansion of higher education could not be funded out of general taxation. Contrary to this argument, the expansion needed at that point was priced at approximately £2 billion, hardly straining the purse strings. However, New Labour was actively seeking to re-found higher education on the North American model.

In the 1998 legislation following Dearing, fees were initially set at £1000 per annum, with the promise that they would not be increased. Legislation subsequently passed in 2004 allowed a “variable” fees system, wherein fees could increase to £3000 per annum, and later the cap was raised to £3225. In practise, most universities charged the maximum, and university Vice Chancellors enthusiastically embraced this system. This made sense because it resolved the constant funding dilemmas that came with waiting for a reluctant central government to pay up, and also raised their salaries to a level commensurate with those of “the market.” But those who were most enthusiastic were the managers of the most prestigious universities, notably the Russell Group, who led calls for a review to increase fees even further.

The Browne Report was the result of this pressure. Its recommendations formed the basis of the government’s policy of raising the fees cap to £9000. It was estimated that most universities would have to increase fees to at least £8000 simply to retain their current position, and it was subsequently disclosed that 90% of universities planned to charge the maximum in at least some courses. It is difficult to believe that this will be the end of the fee increases. The system incentivises Vice Chancellors to demand more, and the bloated managerial, PR, and advertising departments arising from “marketisation” will need sustenance. Indeed, the Vice Chancellors group, Universities UK, has already stated that the system will need more money.

However, as Stefan Collini argued at the time of the reforms, higher fees are a symptom rather than the disease. Far more fundamental is the transformation of higher education into a “lightly regulated market” and, above all, the hierarchies that this will generate.

A key function of the education system is to divide people into superiors and inferiors. Insofar as it doesn’t do this sufficiently well, it generates carping from employers and the Right. It was a mainstay of Thatcherism that we ought to “let our children grow tall, and some taller than others if they have the ability to do so.” This was the “meritocratic” justification for inequality. But what if, as Danny Dorling argues in Injustice, people are “remarkably equal in their abilities”? What if too many “children grow tall”?

In the past decade, the growing number of children receiving A-C grades in GCSEs, or progressing to further and higher education, has been taken as evidence of “declining standards.” Capital complained that it was impossible to recruit from the best if the education system didn’t select the best. The Association of Graduate Recruiters, which represents 750 top employers on this issue, called for an end to the target of 50% university attendance for this very reason, while supporting the fees. They concluded that the government’s measures constituted “the best way to drive up standards in higher education.” The British Chambers of Commerce and the CBI have long articulated the same position.

Far from showing an educational system fraught with “declining standards,” the evidence is that standards continually increase. Borrowing a physical analogy, the records for 100 yard sprints and one mile runs through the last century demonstrate that the time taken to run these distances has continually decreased as technique, training, and resources improved. The fact that intelligence is a far more complex and dynamic attribute than physical endurance means that it is far easier for knowledge and skills, given the right conditions, to improve rapidly over time. And this is exactly what has happened. In the post-war era, smaller family sizes, better nutrition, and more secure environment raised standards. And the more standards are raised, the risk is that there will be a degree of equalisation in outcomes as more people obtain higher grades or progress to higher education. Social divisions based on intelligence and aptitude must be constructed, which means constructing and measuring intelligence and aptitude in such a way as to produce elites.

And this is where “marketisation” comes in. The major beneficiaries of these changes will be the so-called “ivy league” institutions, which will have better resources to attract students and their funding. A multi-tiered system is an inevitable corollary of competition. Further, since the fees increase is linked to the elimination of assistance for poor students getting through “A” Levels, the system will become more selective in favour of the rich. And further, by treating education as the augmentation of “human capital,” the reforms encourage those working class students who do make it into the system to choose vocational degrees and STEM subjects that are more likely to generate income streams, rather than further their Bildung. If higher education is a commodity worth incurring £40,000 of debt for, it better assure returns. Overall, richer students will have much more freedom and thrive far more readily in this new terrain.

A final outcome that can be anticipated is that as students become consumers rather than citizens, their right to participate in a democratic university life will be further abridged, and student life radically depoliticised. The university enterprise, to succeed in this new situation, must assert the primacy of its property rights, as the University of London recently did when banning protests on its grounds.

And this is the pattern with austerity. The measures introduced under the rubric of an emergency, the supposed need to consolidate debt and appease “the market,” ultimately do little for the debt, and only consolidate the market’s tyrannical reach.

This article, based on a previously published piece entitled “No Confidence,” originally posted by the author at Lenin’s Tomb, is the first in a P.S. series on austerity and education. 

Richard Seymour

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