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The marketisation of education is destroying our universities

Staff working in UK universities have taken two days of industrial action this term and are currently, “working to contract” which means they don’t work more than their contracted hours and don’t carry out any voluntary duties.

Our industrial action is about pay which has plummeted by 13% in real terms since October 2008. But while pay is a major driver, the deep-seated unhappiness that many staff now feel has been brought about by more than just falling real-term rates of pay.

The job of an academic has become increasingly characterised by unmanageably high workloads, stress and insecurity. Many University and College Union (UCU) members report working a 45 hour-week, then spending most evenings and weekends working at home.

The pressure is on to excel at teaching, produce research that is graded as “internationally excellent”, bring money in to the university through fundraising and grant applications, answer all correspondence efficiently, and be constantly available to ever-increasing numbers of students.

Many staff will tell you their working lives have fundamentally transformed since the government begun its all-out drive to create a market in higher education. Its decision to lift the cap on tuition fees and take away the teaching grant for all but STEM courses has been a massive game-changer for staff.

The reality that most students will now pay £9,000 a year in tuition fees alone for their degree courses has turned the higher education world on its head. Students are consumers and they are assessing degree choices as if they were buying their first car. The amount of teaching hours, the quality of learning facilities and buildings, staff reputation, and ranking in the national Student Satisfaction Survey are the key factors they’ll take into consideration.

The pressure is on like never before for staff but they are told there is no money to reward their hard work. This year they were offered a miserly 1% pay rise and that is why members of the University and College Union, UNISON and UNITE voted to strike.

The organisation that represents higher education institutions, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, insists the money is not there for a bigger pay rise. It argues that universities need to maintain a buffer of surpluses and those are currently low. However, longer term forecasts by HEFCE show that surpluses are growing not shrinking. In English institutions, there is a blip over the next year, when surpluses are due to fall from just over £900m (4.2%) of income to £660m (2.7% of income). However after that, they will begin a longer-term rise. They are forecast to reach £1.1 billion (4.3% of income) by 2015/6 as a result of higher undergraduate tuition fees and international student recruitment

In addition in England, the sector’s discretionary reserves are strong. At the end of 2011/12, they totalled £8,965 million, taking into account pension liabilities (excluding USS) representing 38.5% of income. These reserves are forecast to accumulate to £13,398 million by 2015/16, according to HEFCE.

The reality is that universities are choosing other priorities - most obviously buildings and senior staff at the expense of everyone else. It’s not possible to quantify expenditure on buildings but our members report building work is ubiquitous on campus. Of course, new buildings and facilities will help to attract students but they are no guarantee of quality of education.

What is equally apparent to staff is that pay and benefits for university leaders is on a strong upwards trajectory. Pay for Vice Chancellors increased, on average, by more than £5,000 in 2011/12, with the average pay and pensions package for Vice Chancellors hitting almost £250,000.

The gap between those at the top and those at the bottom is stretching. A large number of junior research, administrative and support staff are on poorly paid contracts. Research by the National Union of Students, found that 80 HEI institutions pay below the Living Wage to some of their employees, equating to 57% of universities. More than 12,500 employees are paid less than the Living Wage by UK universities. Shockingly, the median lowest wage of staff in UK universities is under the Living Wage at £7.39.

Wages are held down more generally through increasing usage of zero-hour contracts. A survey by UCU carried out in August found that just under half of universities (46%) had more than 200 staff on zero-hour contracts. At the remaining 54% of institutions the number employed on zero-hour contracts ranged from one to 199. These insecure contracts are particularly prevalent amongst teaching staff, who are denied paid holiday. They are justified in the name of flexibility allowing a university to hire and fire as student demand changes.

The marketisation of higher education is still in its infancy but already its effects are pervasive in so many ways. Many staff report grave concern about the future of higher education. A commonly held belief is that our world-leading system is steadily being turned into a “sausage factory” of graduates.