A new report from Universities UK, the lobby group for university heads, has spelled out the dramatic consequences of the public spending cuts.
University education has expanded over the last twenty years, from 10 per cent of 18 year olds attending, to over 40 per cent today. More people than ever before are now attending university in Britain. Universities are no longer the province of only the privileged.
There are problems in this. The expansion has not benefitted everyone equally. Our universities still do not reflect the diversity of the population. Loans and fees have helped restrict access to those from lower income families.
University experiences can differ sharply. The student with wealthy parents at an ancient institution will have a very different perception of university life to the poorer student in one of the newer colleges, forced to work long hours on top of their studying.
But widening access to education should be defended in principle. Education is a right that a decent society should make available to all, on the basis of their ability to learn.
An educated workforce
Yet this expansion of opportunity has not been provided as a result of altruism. As Universities UK note, a well-educated workforce is vital for corporate profits. Expanding university education looked like a relatively cheap and simple way to produce it.
Businesses, aided by government, have attempted to shift the costs of generating that workforce elsewhere. Tuition fees and then top-up fees forced students to carry some of the weight. General taxation carried the rest.
The impact of the crisis
The financial crisis has broken this set-up. Bailing out the collapsed financial system required extraordinary expenditure. Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, estimates the total cost to the public to be £1,000bn.
This is an astronomic figure. The entire universities budget for a year is £13bn.
It is the bailout, not public spending, that has produced the dramatic rise in the public debt.
But this Coalition government are using the excuse of deficit reduction to attempt a restructuring of the state. They are demanding £67bn worth of cuts over the next few years “ the biggest attack on public expenditure since the Great Depression.
Many public services are under direct threat. University education is one of them.
The bleak future
Instead of expansion, restrictions in access, as we have seen already this year. Instead of education for all, regardless of ability to pay, Lord Browne’s review of university funding is expected to recommend fees increases.
Universities UK see all this as inevitable. They foresee a future in which a two-tier university system emerges. A privileged elite, from the richest households, will enjoy the usual university experience: a move away from home to learn in an environment that encourages debate and free-thinking.
The majority will be squeezed into under-funded institutions, running up huge debts for an education determined solely by its suitability for narrowly-defined business interests. Moving away from home will be a thing of the past. Debate, discussion, and the creative thinking Universities UK believe is important to university life will be forgotten.
This is not the education system any of us should want.
Opposing the cuts is vital. Students, lecturers, and all those who use on public services should not have to bear the costs of the bankers’ bailout. It is grossly unjust for ordinary people to be forced to support the gambling habits of some of the richest in the country.
The NUS and UCU unions, representing students and staff, have called a national demonstration against cuts for 10 November. We should try and get every student there to pile the pressure on this government.
But the fight for free education has to also consider its own alternatives. Against the proposals from the Coalition government, or the fatalism of Universities UK, we should start to think how universities could be made better for all: centres for learning open to the community; encouraging participation beyond the traditional attendees; a space in which education and dialogue can flourish.
We must oppose the cuts to education funding. But we must also show how the system could be made better. We discussed and debated all these issues at our first event of the year on 9 Oct headlined by Tony Benn.
Photos and videos HERE
Look for ‘ReThink Education’ on Facebook or www.ulu.co.uk
And join us to protest against these cuts on Oct 20th. Join the Student Feeder March at 4pm to go from ULU to meet all the other feeder marches including Pensioners, Unison, Artists against cuts and others.
Go HERE to print off posters and flyers to use on your campuses.