A decade ago this October, the Browne review on student finance and higher education was published. While it was the coalition government that would implement much of the document, the review was originally commissioned by Labour a year earlier. Lord Mandelson, then business secretary, had hinted back then that an increase in tuition fees was likely, declaring that the country “had to face up to the challenge of paying for excellence”.
A year later, speaking at the Guardian’s Hugo Young lecture, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg defended the new government’s proposed tripling of fees. Just weeks after thousands had rioted at Millbank, the Tory party headquarters, Clegg employed the rhetoric of social justice: “Higher education should be a powerful engine for social mobility. Right now it isn’t. Our policies will finally make higher education open to everyone”.
Today, claims of excellence and social mobility ring hollow. Clegg is a vice-president at Facebook, reputedly earning a seven-figure salary while living in a $7m California mansion. Mandelson, meanwhile, has spent the summer touting himself as the next head of the WTO. The jet set lives of both men stand in stark contrast to the lives of those currently being held hostage by universities across the country, after young people were misled about the safety of environments they have since entered. The dreadful consequences of this are now with us, as thousands are forced to self-isolate with little instruction from university managements – their detention enforced by professional security guards. Meanwhile lessons and seminars, which cost £9,250 a year and which will leave most in a lifetime of debt, are being delivered entirely online.
Something which has long been common sense for those critical of changes to higher education – brought into sharp relief after 2010 but long preceding it – now appears self-evident: in parting with tens of thousands of pounds, students aren’t paying for an education, but a piece of paper. What’s more, the value of the skills, knowledge and wisdom imparted through higher education is secondary to the maintenance of the university as a debt factory, an institution primed more for consumption and rent extraction in the present than value creation in the future. After all, if I can learn about statistics, linear algebra, epistemology and Python at Udemy – and for a fraction of the price – why would I pay £9,250 for videos on a computer screen?
This shift has meant the emergence of a new political economy around higher education. No longer is the university’s purpose to train the workers of tomorrow, nor open new vistas of interest and personal expression. Of course, young people are still somewhat empowered by a degree, but the so-called dividend affirmed by higher education is far from guaranteed, with several high paying professions distorting the data. Instead, the university has increasingly become a site to generate powerlessness – young people less the stewards and engineers of tomorrow than the cash cows, tenants and consumers of today.
This is the reason students were so actively encouraged to begin their degrees this year, despite the fact offline learning was entirely impracticable and the public health risks – as we’re now seeing – potentially catastrophic. Students should have been offered substantial discounts on their fees – or better yet, their suspension – with halls of residence made available exclusively to those unable to remain at home. The fact that such a common sense approach was deemed impossible can only be understood by examining how central rentierism and debt now are to the sector.
Since 2010, increased student numbers have fuelled a frenzy in construction activity in Britain – something rare for an economy that has struggled since the global financial crisis. Purpose built student accommodation, otherwise known as PBSA, now caters for around 600,000 people, approximately a third of Britain’s full time student population. Had the government implored students to undertake their degrees from home – including students from overseas – this industry would have collapsed.
Recent years have been good to the sector: student accommodation giant Unite saw its share price increase 183% in the five years to last December, while February saw the UK’s largest ever private real estate deal when Blackstone purchased IQ Student Accommodation from Goldman Sachs for £4.7bn. It’s little surprise, then, that the PBSA sector was estimated to be worth some £50bn last year, with significant growth expected through to 2030. In Portsmouth, where one need not look far for vacant shop fronts, high rise student flats are especially conspicuous. In Plymouth, the city’s tallest building is the student tower Beckley Point. Elsewhere, Bournemouth has the suitably titled ‘Skyline Tower’, Leeds the ‘Sky Plaza’ and Manchester ‘Liberty Heights’. The Chapter Block in London’s Spitalfields boasts more than 1,110 bedrooms, as well as a karaoke studio, cinema and a bar on the 32nd floor. The cheapest room costs £304 a week, the most expensive £725. Chapter’s South Bank site, meanwhile, has a sky lounge. Investment isn’t being directed towards educating our young people, but making money out of them.
For decades, the expansion of higher education has also been central to wider regeneration efforts, with accommodation and the debt-backed purchasing power of students coming to play an increasingly outsized role in city economies outside the capital. The decline of the high street over the last ten years has been somewhat mitigated by the rise of independent cafes and chains – like Nandos, Starbucks and PureGym – that appeal to millennials and Gen Z. Without students, these businesses would struggle – as would much of the night-time economy. Just ask any taxi driver in a town or city with a university.
This should be a revelatory moment. What Covid-19 has shown is that Britain’s university sector puts the interests of developers, landlords and university management above those of students. For decades, in the absence of a national industrial policy, the credit-fuelled purchasing power of undergraduates – and new builds which need not adhere to usual standards for residential construction – has kept cities and towns afloat. In the immediate future, this poses major problems: if more than a million students aren’t consuming goods and services, then businesses which depend on them will vanish.
This is no way to educate young people, nor plan our towns and cities. The spectacle of students being essentially incarcerated in their halls may seem absurd, but it is merely the logical conclusion of everything – including university education – being subordinated to the interests of rentiers, landlords and big business.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.