Universities in the UK are under threat. A series of reforms has made universities more like businesses, subject to market forces. We believe that these changes to the way universities operate and are governed pose a risk to a university’s central function, which is to gather knowledge, free from interference, and to educate people in the skills they need to think critically and independently. For an insight into how this is under threat, read our thoughts about the new regulator, the Office for Students, here. Our response to the government’s proposed review of higher education funding is here.
We believe that it’s time to fight back. At the heart of our campaign is a desire to resist the marketisation of higher education. Marketisation takes many forms: below are three areas where we believe it has been especially pernicious.
The TEF purports to rate university teaching, categorising each institution as gold, silver or bronze. In reality, the metrics used do not measure teaching quality – they relate instead to graduate employment rates, retention rates and scores on the National Student Survey. This misuse of proxy indicators risks damaging the reputation of UK Higher Education. The government wants TEF rankings to be linked to the ability to raise student fees. We believe that this will encourage universities to find ways of gaming the results while doing nothing to improve the quality of teaching.
A career in university teaching is now precarious. Many universities have been saving costs by taking on recently-qualified PhD graduates and postdocs at low pay on fixed-term teaching contracts, where they may remain for years, moving from institution to institution. They provide a cheap source of labour in universities where the vice-chancellor may be earning a six-figure sum. We believe that the overuse of short-term contracts is indefensible, and does a disservice to students as well as to academics.
The government’s Higher Education and Research Act, passed in 2017, makes it easier for new providers to offer degree courses. There is already evidence in the UK as well as the US that some private providers offer lower-quality, cut-price courses in selected subjects, leading to qualifications that have little value. Teaching at such institutions will not be backed by the strong research offering in our public universities. The UK’s universities have an excellent worldwide reputation: opening the sector to private providers without adequate safeguards risks denting that reputation as well as enabling exploitation of students.