Lewis Griffiths, Swansea Marxists:
As with just about every other corner of society, the COVID-19 pandemic has once again brought to light the brutal contradictions fostered by capitalism in the education system.
The marketisation of education has left the system so dependent on the tuition fees of students that over the coming year universities across Britain could see their revenues drawn from tuition drop by a third, as foreign students are reluctant to travel abroad for their education.
The situation is growing dire for Universities, and it is not just the Marxists who are noticing it. According to the Financial Times “the large market-orientated university system in the US, UK, Australia and Canada are particularly vulnerable as they have raised tuition fees and borrowed heavily to invest.” So much for the efficiency of the free market!
The impact of such a development, however, will not affect the chancellors or their half a million pound annual cheques, but will instead be shifted onto lecturers, on-site workers, and students.
The disastrous state of higher education comes as no surprise to many students. Mental health services have been notoriously underfunded, courses have been scrapped or left with inadequate resources, and cleaners and other on-site workers have been outsourced under conditions that can only be described as a return to the Victorian era.
In one case in Swansea a security guard for student accommodation told us he had to take on 12-16 hour shifts as his company refused to hire additional guards.
Research facilities operating on these premises will also take a hit with Cancer Research UK announcing a £43 million cut back in their budget.
In the last two years there have been three UCU strikes called, disrupting a total of 38 days of university education. Universities UK, the representative for the management of universities across the country, has shown that they will not take concerns on pay seriously, and counter-reforms threaten to worsen the gender and race wage gaps, pensions, and workloads. Instead of victimising lecturers or workers for the days lost to strike action lessons must be learnt from the examples at UCL, SOAS, LSE, KCL and Goldsmiths where student-worker solidarity led to significant concessions that were quickly won from management.
Eleanor Davis, UEA Marxist Society:
Universities are undergoing an unprecedented crisis, with many facing bankruptcy. The representative organisation for British universities, Universities UK (UUK) recently asked the government for a £2 billion bailout to help them cope with the effects of the pandemic. This would help offset the lost money resulting from fewer international students, which provide at least a fifth of income for 48 universities and substantial amounts for others. International students are treated as cash cows – often paying more than three times as much for the same course as a British student.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, universities have had to move all of their teaching online. This could become the new norm, as social distancing will be impossible. Universities minister Michelle Donelan has said that universities can continue to charge the £9,250 per year fee for tuition, even if all teaching is done online. This will understandably not sit well with students. Many may choose to defer going to university until they are able to access in-person teaching, resulting in a fall in domestic students too. Universities’ nances are therefore looking dire.
The government however has refused this demand for a bailout. Instead universities will be entitled to the £2.6 billion of tuition fees early, rather than having to wait until the start of the next academic year in September. Yet this loan is merely an attempt to delay the inevitable: the bankruptcy facing universities.
The government is simply kicking the can down the road and failing to address the black hole in university funding. Even before the coronavirus crisis, many smaller universities were struggling, facing
large deficits year after year. Even the most prestigious institutions are taking on increasing debts.
As is always the case, it will not be the Vice-Chancellors and senior management who suffer. They will continue to reward themselves with massive salaries and perks. Instead, the nancial damage will be the burden of staff and students as universities are forced to make cuts in order to stay afloat.
Workers will lose their jobs, the remaining staff will be given increased workloads to make up for lost manpower, and casualisation will increase. With workers already suffering as a result of the pandemic, their situation will become even more precarious as austerity clamps down in the aftermath.
It is clear that capitalism cannot support universities. Although the wealth exists in society to fully fund higher education for all, it is not profitable for the capitalists to do so. But if universities are left to the mercy of anarchic market forces, they will go bust.
Students must stand shoulder to shoulder with staff in fighting this threat. Ultimately, we need to end the rotten and exploitative capitalist system that cannot cope with any kind of crisis. We need a socialist alternative that runs in the interests of the needs of workers and students, rather than profit. Education is not a business.