HE Reforms Have Been Rocked, but the Student Movement Must Keep Pressure On

by Ana Oppenheim

8 March 2017

UK Parliament/Flickr

This week the House of Lords passed an amendment to the Higher Education and Research (HE) Bill cutting the link between the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and future tuition fee rises. This removes the incentive for universities to participate in TEF, rendering it essentially impotent and dealing a significant blow to government plans. It is exciting news, but the student movement mustn’t rest on its laurels.

Some, such as Labour MP and former NUS president Wes Streeting, would have you believe that it was “forensic scrutiny from Lords and sector” that won it. Yet the vote comes after a major NUS campaign to boycott the National Student Survey (NSS) and significant grassroots student mobilisation. Let’s not forget that the vice-chancellor of Warwick’s public condemnation of TEF – that ‘forensic scrutiny’ to which Streeting refers – was the outcome of negotiations with a student occupation.

The NSS boycott has rattled the sector. A recent freedom of information request revealed that my own institution, University of the Arts London, has spent £50k on promoting the NSS. There are also anecdotal reports that other universities are ploughing huge amounts of money into marketing campaigns to combat the effects of the boycott. Yet in many places these marketing campaigns are failing while the boycott seems to be succeeding, and it would be reasonable to presume that the potential disruption of the boycott has spurred the Lords into action.

The boycott has also kept TEF at the top of the agenda on campuses, making headlines and engaging students who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of these reforms.

The Lords vote is not the end of the fight. The issue will now go back to the Commons, which could easily reject the amendment. It is the student movement’s task to bring pressure to bear on MPs to accept the amendment and sever the link between TEF and fees.

Even if the amendment passes, and the link between TEF and fees is cut, there are many more threats from the HE Bill. Students and staff across the country are at risk from proposals to deregulate private providers, with plans to permit unproven private companies to award degrees and call themselves universities. Previous attempts to smuggle privatisation through the back door have gone disastrously. When publicly-backed student loans were opened to private providers, massive, unchecked expansion saw sky-high dropout rates and what Margaret Hodge, chair of the public accounts committee at the time, described as “the potential misuse of millions of pounds of public money.”

A whole raft of reforms are being introduced which aim to turn universities into businesses and higher education into a market. TEF and the broader reforms in the HE Bill are a core part of this process, but other proposals, such as two-year degrees and doctoral loans, are also part of the programme. Through fee rises and the expansion of loans they transform students into cash cows, rather than valued members of the academic community; and through the NSS and TEF, they introduce consumer logic to the governance of universities, rather than democracy.

If the government wants to make teaching excellent, then perhaps it should consider ending the use of casual contracts and low pay for graduate teaching assistants. The quality of education is improved by investing in teaching and ending insecurity, not by assigning gold, silver or bronze to universities on the basis of an arbitrary set of metrics.

Monday’s vote was a great victory for the student movement, which struck at the heart of the higher education reforms. But it does not mark the end of the struggle. NUS and grassroots student groups, such as the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, must keep up the pressure. We must be bold in stating our alternative vision: democratic universities in a free and fully-funded higher education system, for the public good.

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