The Privatisation of Higher Education

In 2010, it was announced that tuition fees would rise from £3,000 to £9,000 – in defiance of the manifesto pledge made by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

Thousands lost their faith in contemporary politics, which prompted the Student Protests of 2010. News coverage focused on the actions of a minority responsible for damaging infrastructure at the Conservative Party Headquarters in London. The Metropolitan Police were overwhelmed with the violence, Sir Paul Stephenson noted that his offers would go through a ‘thorough operation to get full control of the building’ and recognised that their anticipation of violence could have been ‘better’.

Harriet Harman, Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, questioned the intentions of Nick Clegg. She asked: ‘In April, he [Clegg] said that increasing tuition fees to £7,000 a year would be a disaster. What word would he use to describe fees of £9,000?’ However, nothing changed despite the violence, frustration, and opposition from members of the House of Commons.

Since then, there was a major change in attitudes and expectations within the higher education sector, with students expecting a better service for their money. Student expectations, caused by rising tuition fees, have torn the heart and soul out of higher education in England and Wales.

Higher education institutions have been slow to respond to the corporatisation of universities and it is not surprising that legal and non-legal action has increased over recent years. In 2014, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, responsible for disputes following internal procedures, ruled on 2,175 cases brought forward by students in England and Wales. In total, the OIA forced institutions to pay £400,000 in financial compensation to students in 2014.

In 2018, following industrial action by staff and students across the country, it is estimated that around 5,000 students united and filed a lawsuit requesting compensation of around £20 million. The main grievance was that students had lost teaching, which they were paying for, and in respect of this loss they should be appropriately compensated by their universities. The University and College Union estimated that the strike action affected more than one million students and led to a loss of 575,000 teaching hours in England and Wales.

With universities falling short of expectations and tuition fees continuing to rise, there has been more calls for the government to create a legally binding contract between institutions and their students. Jo Johnson, former Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, claimed that contracts would offer students greater protection and ensure that institutions would deliver to high standards. He stated: ‘Clearly it is in the nature of a contract that someone who feels that the benefits promised in the contract are not getting delivered would have some form of redress.’ He concluded: ‘Clearly, through the consultation options that we will be publishing in the course of time, we’ll see what those options will consist of, but legal remedies are certainly not excluded.’

There has been a low, but constant, move towards the corporatisation of colleges and universities in the United Kingdom. It is no surprise that this statement was issued by an anonymous academic for the Guardian: ‘Eventually, feeling depressed and demotivated, I left my university and the UK. It strikes me that UK academia is in danger of devaluing experience and expertise, taking away academics’ freedom and focusing instead on delivering a standardised product. The marketisation of higher education makes working in a UK university feel like working in a business, transforming it into a stifling, rule-bound environment that damages collegiality.’

So, are we focusing too much on business and not enough on the core values of higher education? If so, we are in danger of permanently changing the nature and direction of education in the United Kingdom.

Opinion from the author -Thomas Howard:

Higher education is being pushed down a dangerous path by the policies espoused by the Conservative Government. How can we save it? It is essential that high expectations are removed, and this can be easily achieved by scrapping tuition fees, or at least lowering them to a sustainable level. Too many students have been disappointed with their results, to the extent of pursuing legal action, or the structure of their course following the increase in tuition fees in 2010. Of course, we should strive for high quality in our universities, but we should not create a hostile division between staff and students and encourage stakeholders to file legal action at the first opportunity. I recognise that legal action may be essential in some cases, but it cannot become the norm. It is essential that we have greater government oversight and that internal routes for redress are made more accessible to students across the United Kingdom. We can save our universities and colleges, but we must act fast.

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