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Volume 46 Number 24, December 10, 2016 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

United for Education

Students and University Staff Demonstrate against the Higher Education Bill

A reported 15,000 students and lecturers marched through central London on Saturday, November 19 to demand free, high quality further and higher education as of right.

Demonstrators marched from Park Lane to a rally at Millbank, Westminster. Police were deployed in force, though no incidents were reported.

The "United for Education" #Nov19 action was organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) in opposition to the Higher Education and Research Bill, which received its third parliamentary reading the following Monday. The Bill is currently in Committee stage in the House of Lords, having received its second reading in that chamber on December 6.

This is a Bill to enact the proposals outlined in the Higher Education Green Paper published last November. As analysed at the time [i], this is a plan to put business at the heart of the higher education system, to re-architect the system on overtly market-centric principles, summed up in the principle to: "Create an open, market-based and affordable system, with more competition and innovation, and a level playing field for new providers."

The Bill's Explanatory Notes couldn't be clearer: point one on its summary is that the Bill seeks "to open up the higher education sector with the aim of encouraging more competition and choice by making it easier for new high-quality providers to start up and achieve degree awarding powers, and subsequently secure university status."

The Bill is indeed a wholesale reorganisation of the higher education system, and will abolish the Higher Education Funding Council for England, established in 1992, and replace it with an Office for Students, which will act as a market regulator. The Explanatory Notes outline the conception of "student-focussed", revealing the phrase to be a euphemism for marketisation through and through: "The OfS will have the duty of promoting quality, greater choice and opportunities for students. It will also have a duty to encourage competition and value for money in the provision of higher education... These duties will ensure the OfS will focus on fostering a more competitive system..."

Not only did the Green Paper on which the Bill is based represent a stepping-up of marketisation, with open reference to students as "consumers", it also put forth a shift in focus from research to teaching, to address the so-called skills shortage and to "increase productivity", or the competitiveness of businesses. In this respect, it proposed that business directly determine course content: it envisaged universities "being open to involving employers ... in curriculum design".

The Bill will therefore greatly relax the conditions on new institutions being granted the title of university, including private, for-profit institutions.

It will also establish a Teaching Excellence Framework, under which universities that rank highly will be able to raise fees with inflation. This comes on top of the recent (re)abolition of means-tested grants and their replacement by loans.

Malia Bouattia, President of the NUS, speaking at the rally

In the lead-up to the demonstration, the NUS stated:

"Education is under attack like never before. FE [Further Education] colleges have closed, jobs have been lost and students are being forced deeper and deeper into debt by a government happy to see companies making profit off the back of student poverty. It's time to take a stand.

"So on 19 November we will be marching in central London under the banner of United for Education, to demand free, quality further and higher education, accessible to all."

"Free, good quality education is a right for all," said the NUS, "regardless of ability to pay and more than at any time before we have to fight for that."

The union listed its "three key asks" as:

Speaking at the rally, NUS president Malia Bouattia said:

"The government is running at pace with a deeply risky ideologically led market experiment in further and higher education, and students and lecturers, who will suffer most as a result, are clear that this can't be allowed to happen."

"This week, before the bill has even been properly debated in parliament - let alone passed - universities are already advertising fees above £9,000," she added.

"Staff pay has been held down in recent years, while the gender pay gap has risen," said UCU general secretary Sally Hunt. "All the while those at the top have continued to enjoy inflation-busting pay rises."

Workers' Weekly fully supports students and staff in their opposition to the Bill and their stand in favour of the right to education. As we wrote last year, the aim is to change higher education beyond recognition. The proposed legislation is a resounding echo of the "grenade thrown into the NHS" that was the Health and Social Care Act and contains many parallels, particularly surrounding the opening up of the system to private provision. Opening up the market is the means of achieving a university system under the control of big business, and is fundamentally incompatible with the students' demand for universal, free, high quality further and higher education that serves their interests and the general interests of society as of right.

[i] Workers' Weekly, "Government publishes Higher Education Green Paper: Putting the Monopolies at the Heart of the System", Volume 45 Number 33, November 21, 2015,


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