In solidarity with students: so what more might academics do?

A while back Andrew McGettigan ended a piece on Financialising the University with a call for action.

It goes without saying that this process [negotiated independence for the elite or shedding charitable status the better to access private finance] and that of the financialisation associated with a generalised loan scheme will feed off each other. Although the policy terrain is settled temporarily, the ball is very much in the court of individual institutions: there are few safeguards against the ambition of overweening vice-chancellors fuelled by new financial options.

I am frequently asked, ‘what then should be done?’ My answer is that unless academics rouse themselves and contest the general democratic deficit from within their own institutions and unless we have more journalists taking up these themes locally and nationally, then very little can be done. We are on the cusp of something more profound than is indicated by debates around the headline fee level; institutions and sector could make moves that will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo.

Yesterday McGettigan wrote that the UK Government confirms preference for retrospective price hike on undergraduate study. He noted that:

in order to put English undergraduate financing on ‘a sustainable footing’ [the Government] proposes as its ‘preferred option’ to go back to all those who have started since 2012 (and taken out loans) and demand that they repay more.

The proposed mechanism is that the repayment threshold of £21000 be frozen at that rate for 5 years after 2016. Borrowers were promised from 2010/11 onwards that the threshold would rise in line with average earnings after 2016.

That change – ‘Option 1′ – will affect around 2million borrowers. A freeze for five years may not sound dramatic but if you expect a graduate starting salary of £30,000 or less the government provides examples to show that you will be £6,000 worse off in net present value terms (using a discount rate of RPI plus 2.2%).

The government estimates that this retrospective price hike will raise £3.2billion from the four cohorts who have experienced the £9000 fee (those who started between 2012/13 and 2015/16 inclusive). And their examples show it will be middle and lower earners who take the hit. This is consistent with the recent analysis published by Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The consultation closes on 14 October 2015. I urge you to respond as an individual if you are affected.

It’s fundamentally unfair to impose such changes after individuals have signed up for loans. The silence of the universities on this matter is worse than their craven behaviour in 2010. They don’t have any excuse now that the government’s own figures show the likely impact of what is proposed.

Today in the Times Higher ran a piece entitled Proposal to force current students to pay more for loans ‘cynical and immoral’.

But Bahram Bekhradnia [president of the Higher Education Policy Institute] said it was “a disgrace and not worthy of any government” that the changes would be imposed on those who have already taken out loans, adding that it set a “shocking precedent” for government financial offerings, including public sector pensions.

The piece also noted that:

Universities UK is still yet to offer a public comment on the government’s plans. That is despite the student funding panel set up by UUK, and chaired by its president, Sir Christopher Snowden, recommending in its report last month that there should be a repayment threshold freeze if changes were needed to the student loans system.

This led McGettigan to highlight that “The silence of the universities on this matter is worse than their craven behaviour in 2010.”

So maybe it is time for academics to do a bit more because this is yet another example of social injustice in the name of austerity. And because it reframes the relationships between students, now locked-in as consumers, and institutions, and therefore potentially between students and staff. And because it reframes the curriculum as a pivot for value and efficiency. And because it recalibrates the very nature of academic labour as excellence.

This sets another front in the austerity-inspired assault on previously socialised value, co-opting the whole of the public space for private gain. It connects to wider injustices around the financialisation and marketisation of healthcare, the assault on public sector pensions, the pejorative language around welfare and the impact of policy on child poverty, and the reductionist logic of “aspiration”, and on, and on.

So what more might academics do?

  1. Send the consultation to your students and advise them of what it means. Consider sending the links to McGettigan’s analysis, and that of the IFS on the Government’s student finance proposals, which will raise debt for poorer students and repayments for most graduates (plus McGettigan’s take on that).
  2. Press your Vice Chancellor to do the same for your institution. You might consider doing this via your trade union, because solidarity is a weapon. You might also consider ways to enable UCU, Unison etc. to demonstrate on-campus and cross-campus solidarity on this issue. This includes solidarity with local branches of the Students Union.
  3. Press UniversitiesUK to reject the Government’s preferred option (1) in the consultation.
  4. Consider local/regional/national mechansisms and strategies for widening this campaign to other moments and places for opposition to the assault on the public. This might take the form of work with trades councils or social centres or trades unions in other sectors. Or work with other protest groups. Or work with students and alumni, because work with current and former students, their families, and communities is critical.


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