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Can Universities Become ‘Anchors’ for a Green Economy?

Universities like to think of themselves as ‘anchor institutions‘, as locally rooted civic organisations providing a range of economic and social benefits to surrounding communities. However, these benefits are more often than not conceived in terms of ‘trickle down’ economics, in which the rapid gentrification of certain sections of these communities is supposed to represent an overall increase in civic welfare and wellbeing, as if local residents should be happy that their essential public services have been replaced by fast food restaurants and craft beer bars.

The idea of universities as anchor institutions is also central to ‘community wealth building‘ models of local and regional transformation. In these models, universities, hospitals and other organisations with strong social and economic connections to particular areas are encouraged to redirect their procurement strategies towards local businesses. In their most progressive examples, these local businesses should be worker-owned and co-operatively run and be focused on environmentally sustainable production and consumption. Scaling these models up to regional and national levels would be a crucial part of more ambitious goals such as a Green New Deal, which Labour, for example, has put at the heart of its radical manifesto for the upcoming general election.

In my contribution to the recent CLASS report, ‘A New Vision for Further and Higher Education’, I argue universities could play this role – of ‘spreading co-operative solutions within local communities, building decentralised processes of social planning into an alternative and achievable vision of sustainable, equitable socio-economic growth’ – but only if they are democratised. Today, marketised universities often act more as a drain on local communities, and against the long-term interests of workers and students in favour of overly ambitious growth plans designed to beat the competition. In this blog post, I briefly describe how universities currently do no act in the public interest, before going on to suggest some ways in which Labour’s manifesto commitments could be strengthened.

Universities behaving badly

For example, a recent HEPI report has suggested that pressure on university staff to enhance ‘student experience’ – the only measure of quality in the commodified system of English higher education today – has resulted in an epidemic of work-related stress. Referrals to counselling and occupational health services have doubled across the board, Dr Liz Morrish finds, with some universities seeing much higher rises: a 316% rise in counselling referrals at the University of Warwick, and 424% more staff using occupational health services at the University of Kent.

Alongside excessive workloads and workload models which frequently under-count time necessary for fulfilling task and audit and metrics-based systems of performance management that dominate the working lives of academics, Dr Morrish also points to the ubiquity of precarious employment contracts which do not allow for career planning or advancement as a causes of this emerging academic mental health crisis.

According to the University and College Union, almost three-quarters of academic researchers are stuck on fixed-term contracts, with many more ‘living precariously on contracts which are nominally open-ended, but which have built-in redundancy dates’. Another 37,000 teaching staff are on such contracts – the majority of them hourly paid – which UCU estimates means that 25-30% of teaching in British universities is being delivered by this ‘reserve army’ of academic labour.

As local employers, universities perform no better. Only 33 British universities are accredited Living Wage Employers, according to the Living Wage Foundation, which means that around 80% of university staff – ‘the invisible workers cleaning student halls, preparing food in the kitchens or keeping everyone safe on campus’ – do not receive the minimum income necessary to meet their basic needs.

Finally, the ‘studentification’ of suburban areas of towns and cities as a result of rapid – and more importantly, unplanned – university growth has had manifold and extensive consequences on local communities. One of the key impacts identified by the Institution of Environmental Sciences, for example, is on local property markets, with neighbourhoods becoming dominated by ‘houses of multiple occupation’ as local commercial landlords seek to ‘cash in on the rise in student populations’.

As families and residents are ‘priced out of the market,’ IES explains, local schools and public services close and high streets shift towards retail and leisure service aimed at student tastes and lifestyles. ‘Furthermore, studentification can have broader environmental impacts with increased levels of refuse, noise and anti-social behaviour, IES adds, with student areas also ‘often subjected to higher levels of crime, particularly burglary’.

What’s the alternative?

Labour’s National Education Service – a key plank of Labour’s election plans to fundamentally transform British society ‘for the many not the few’ – offers a holistic framework for the decommodification of higher education. While the current NES proposals do much to move the sector away from a marketised system alienated from wider society and based on exploitative relationships with staff and students, I have two suggestions, based on my recent submission to Labour’s Early Years, Education and Skills Policy Commission, that would make this policy even stronger and help establish a truly democratic, public higher education system for future generations.

Expunging the market once and for all – Labour promises to ‘end the failed free-market experiment in higher education, abolish tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants’. However, after 30 years of creeping marketisation, vice-chancellors are used to behaving like the CEOs of multi-national corporations and will continue to do so even in a publicly funded environment. To protect the public interest in higher education, Labour should once in government immediately place each university’s assets in a nonrevocable trust – after the model of the John Lewis Partnership – and reform university governance structures to reflect the stake that a variety of stakeholders (staff, students, communities) have in their success. Co-operative and municipal ownership models, within a national framework, should then be explored as alternatives to the privatised corporate model we have now.

Repairing the UK’s higher education ecology – Labour promises to ‘transform the Office for Students from a market regulator to a body of the National Education Service, acting in the public interest’. Once the public interest has been protected by placing university assets into a nonrevocable trust, Labour should begin a wide-ranging, patient and inclusive consultation with all stakeholder groups to create a national strategy for higher education, linked to similar consultations within compulsory and further education sectors within a broad NES strategy. This consultation should be locally led, with trade unions, local trades councils and community organisations finding out what communities would like to see from their universities, as well as how democratised universities could work together with other organisations to deliver Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution at local and regional levels.

  • David Ridley is an independent researcher and journalist who, until recently, worked in higher education as a Lecturer in English and Journalism. David’s research in the sociology, philosophy and politics of education focuses on the origins and consequences of, as well as democratic alternatives to, marketisation.