As people are trying to come to terms with the pandemic of the coronavirus, we are told that we are all in the same boat. Higher Education in the UK and elsewhere is no exception in this respect. Messages by key university administrators attempt to instil a collective ‘we’ feeling in view of the challenges ahead. And yet, while staff work extra hours up and down the country to facilitate the shift to online teaching, leading universities have already started to lay off employees. It is the most vulnerable colleagues first, those on fixed-term, often zero hours contracts, who are told at short notice that their services are no longer required. How can we understand these, at first sight, contradictory tendencies?
Since 2011, Higher Education has been fundamentally restructured in the UK. Once a well-regulated, stable sector with capped student numbers and secure government funding, Conservative governments have restructured it into a free market service. Tuition fees of £9000 per year (now £9250) replaced government grants as main university income. In 2015, the cap on student numbers was removed transforming potential students into a huge market, for which universities are now in fierce competition (see The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education).
Desperately trying to survive and grow in the market, universities have indebted themselves and re-directed funding away from staff costs to prestigious infrastructure projects, intended to impress potential future students during ever more lavish university open days. Unsurprisingly, industrial relations have soured with staff resisting salary and pension cuts as well as the imposition of ever higher workloads. In turn, students have been transformed into customers, who purchase a good in order to secure a high paying job in the future.
Although not officially private corporations, this quasi market has pushed universities into behaving like one. As Ben Spies-Butcher and Gareth Bryant point out in the Australian context, ‘by forcing universities to seek out private income, governments have encouraged them to increasingly think and act like private entities.’ It is this transformation, which is at the heart of UK universities’ current response to the crisis. In view of potentially huge losses of income with foreign students predicted to stay away in September due to travel restrictions and the intake of domestic students more insecure than ever, universities have shifted into a mode of budget cuts to prepare for the more hostile markets. As a recruitment freeze is established, already published job advertisements are withdrawn. Staff have their personal research accounts frozen and are told not to book any research travel for the foreseeable future.
The most drastic response to date has been announced by three internationally well-known universities this week. As the Guardian reported on 2 April, ‘staff on fixed-term contracts, including visiting lecturers, researchers and student support workers, at Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex universities have been made redundant or told their employment will or may end prematurely, or not be renewed’ (The Guardian, 2 April 2020). For a sector, which has employed more than 50 per cent of its staff on insecure contracts, the potential consequences are enormous.
This is not, however, the only possible response to ensure that HE in the UK remains robust in view of the coronavirus crisis. Worried that universities will intensify the competition for students by making unconditional offers in the struggle for financial survival, first calls have been made to re-introduce the cap on student numbers to ensure that all institutions have a fair chance (The Mirror, 30 March 2020). As the Labour Party Manifesto of the 2019 elections shows, a permanent cap could easily be combined with a return to government grants and the abolition of tuition fees. As proper public institutions with guaranteed public funding, universities would be much more robust in times of economic crisis. Instead of making people redundant, they could guarantee continuing employment.
Unfortunately, those currently in charge of our universities are the least suited people to confront the crisis. Having driven the marketisation of HE and often made their career in this process, the only response they can think of are cuts. Staff members, however, should have no illusions. Their extra efforts now will not be rewarded by a system focused on maximising annual surpluses. Only a fundamental restructuring under new leadership is able to re-establish universities as proper public institutions and HE as a public good.