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Education, Not Marketisation: Why Warwick Students Have Gone into Occupation

Education, Not Marketisation: Why Warwick Students Have Gone into Occupation

At 7.30am on the morning of 2 December, a group of free education activists at the University of Warwick began an occupation of a new £5.3 million conference facility on their campus. Two of their demands – that the university opt out of the government’s ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF) and end the casualisation of its academic staff – are intended both to highlight the problems with the ongoing marketization of higher education, and to fight Warwick University’s participation in these reforms. Here are three of the reasons Warwick for Free Education (WFFE) have gone into occupation explained in more detail.

1. The TEF is a significant step towards a fully marketized higher education system. This occupation comes following years of government attacks on higher education. Since the introduction of tuition fees, the universities sector has been edging closer towards full marketization, with higher education becoming increasingly directed by business interests rather than valued as a public good. In 2012, the coalition government raised the tuition fee cap to £9,000 per year in the hope that this would create a market in higher education whereby elite universities would charge more. However, this hasn’t happened, as almost all universities raised their fees in order to make up for cuts in public funding, with over 94% of universities imposing a £9,000 for all undergraduate courses for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Our current government is now taking measures to artificially introduce competition and variable fees between HE providers through a new metric called the Teaching Excellence Framework. As a parallel to the Research Excellence Framework, which ranks universities in terms of their research output and allocates funding based on their ranking, the TEF is a new opt-in government reform that will attempt to rank universities either bronze, silver or gold based on the quality of their teaching, and award funding accordingly. Universities which score better on the TEF will be also be legitimised in raising their tuition fees above £9,000 per year.

As a WFFE activist explained to me when I visited the occupation at the weekend, the TEF is highly problematic. “The fact that some universities will be able to charge more than others will create an increasingly divided and hierarchical higher education system in the UK, with elite Russell Group universities charging higher fees than others. While university graduates in England already have the highest levels of student debt in the English-speaking world – with students who graduated last year owing an average of £44,000 – these reforms look set to deepen levels of student debt even further.”

2. The TEF is based on inadequate data, and may reinforce racial bias against ethnic minority academics. Although the TEF claims to be able to assess universities’ teaching quality, this is contested. “In reality, [the TEF] doesn’t measure teaching excellence at all. The data which influence a university’s TEF score – such as that from the National Student Survey (NSS) – is more likely to measure something closer to student experience, which has little bearing on actual teaching quality.”

“In addition, the fact that departments with a higher proportion of ethnic minority professors tend to score lower on the NSS than those with a higher proportion of white academics – an effect that researchers at the University of Reading attribute to unconscious racial bias on the part of respondents – suggests that the TEF may reinforce this bias within higher education.”

3. The casualisation of academic staff is an assault on workers' rights. A recent study by the Guardian into precarious employment at Russell Group universities found that the majority of teaching staff at Warwick are on insecure contracts. As a WFFE activist explained: “Government frameworks are increasingly putting pressure on universities to focus on the production of surplus above all else. This leads to degraded working conditions and increased casualisation of staff.”

“If you calculate all the hours that hourly paid tutors put into their lesson plans and background research, and divide that by the amount they get paid, it often works out at less than the national minimum wage. As soon as these staff become economically inefficient from the point of view of the university, they can be dismissed. And, on these contracts, staff have reduced rights to organise to fight for their employment rights.”

The occupation at Warwick – which is fully supported by the Warwick branch of UCU – is just one form of resistance to the marketisation of higher education. Importantly, it demonstrates that far from taking their education for granted, students and young people will fight for an education system free of market values, and truly accessible to all.

For more information on the occupation, please visit the Warwick for Free Education blog.

PHOTO: Max Kennedy