The Tory Squeeze on Education

One of the insidious features of the Tory spending cuts is how they try and get others to do the dirty work of cutting public services for them. I’ve previously described how cuts by the Tories are forcing councils across the country to make very tough choices, kicking pensioners out of nursing homes or shutting down museums sort of stuff.

Another tactic is to “privatise” public services. But because a private company needs to turn a profit (from providing a service that is obviously unprofitable, I mean if the state is struggling to run it at a loss how is a private company supposed to achieve that and earn an extra 20% to keep shareholders happy?), hence they immediately have to start laying off staff and cutting services, just to stay in business. The UK train and bus companies are an excellent example of this practice and its failings.

The NHS is probably next on the list for creeping privatisation and its budget is being cut in real terms (once you account for an ageing and growing population plus inflation) forcing newly independent management into the difficult position of deciding which services to cut back on.

The student loan hole
My own sector, higher education, is starting to see something similar. We’re doing rather well in my department. Our ratings are going up, we’re attracting more and more students. Indeed this year we expect not to need to take any students through clearing as our expectation is that we’ll fill 1st year just through first preferences, overseas, deferred and the rest made up of second preferences.

However, we’re still overall expecting a drop in first year student numbers, and a further drop in years to come, as are many other universities across the UK, indeed they will be down by around 30,000 students across the country.

You may inquire if we’ve got the resources to support more students, why don’t we take them? Well because the UK department for Paranoia (aka the UKBA) has scared away many of the Tier 4 overseas students with their Daily Mail antics. Normally, we’d compensate by recruiting more UK or EU students. However, in order to come to our university the students have to be able to afford the fees. Those from wealthier background can rely on the Bank of Mum & Dad, but the majority have to get finance from the Student Loan Company.

The problem is that the SLC is essentially bankrupt. Nobody knows exactly how much they are on the hook for (they’re something of a Whitehall black box, some statistics on them here if you want a thrall), but with an expectation that 85% of all students will eventually have their debts fully or partially written off, its likely they represent a significant liability. If they were a private company they would be in the category of shoot-this-guy-&-burn-his-credit-cards-if-he-asks-for-credit sort of credit ratings ;D.

Consequently, rapidly depleting whatever cash they get from the government, they’ve made it harder for students to get loans. This in turn means we’ve had to start rationing the number of SLC financed students we allow into each department’s first year. And if we recruited more we’d be over that quota and thus unless they have alternative means of funding, we can’t take them, even if they’ve got the grades and even if we’ve got room on the course.

Inevitably a cut in students will mean a cut in staff. We’re being told that in our department there are no plans for layoffs, other “avenues” for finance are being pursued. Possibly by supporting more Tier 4 students overseas remotely, or doing more private sector teaching and research. But a pay freeze and a stop to any hiring (even of staff retiring or otherwise moving on) seems likely and I’d probably get a frosty reception if I asked for a couple of grand for some new lab kit |-|.

And we’re probably one of the better placed departments (like I said, we’ve been doing pretty well the last few years). But as I’ve highlighted before some universities have vastly overstretched their finances. This artificial squeeze in student numbers the government is implementing will almost certainly lead to some departments closing. Indeed I still reckon it’s just a matter of time before an entire UK university just goes bankrupt. And that doesn’t mean just a load of academics out of work, it would have a further knock on effect across the economy, a drop in tax revenue, drop off in local trade, collapse of house prices and the rental market near to the university, etc.

UKBA tactics backfire
Oddly enough its been hinted to me by conservatives that partially what’s been driving the crack down on Tier 4 students has been because they feel uni’s are recruiting too many at the expense of UK students. Now while I would agree (up to a point), but recruiting students from around the world has always been part of the university experience (right back to the days of Erasmus). And also, if the Tory’s want us to take on more UK students, then there’s the small matter of them paying for that, which they clearly don’t want to do. Universities have been leaning ever more heavily on the Tier 4 crutch to compensate for cuts in their funding (in real terms) by successive UK governments under Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron.

And the irony is, if this is the motivation for the government’s crack down on Tier 4 students its likely to have the opposite effect, as universities simply start recruiting students overseas (quite a number of UK universities have additional campuses overseas already) or maybe even move entire courses overseas, something which will essentially have the opposite effect the government intends! Indeed I happened to glance at a universities job advert website the other day and I noted several jobs being advertised which would appear to involve hiring staff to do this very thing!

Tory Elitism
And of course perhaps more insidiously it means that university education in the UK is increasingly becoming the domain of the wealthy in the UK. They can afford to pay fees and maintenance for their siblings and I’m guessing they’ll soon be uni’s somewhere sufficiently desperate to take any fool regardless of grades who can pay those fees (indeed without naming names, there’s already a couple of them!).

This to me highlights the reality of the Tory cuts. Public services that those on middle or lower income depend on get cut. Not because of “the deficit (actually thanks to the cuts the UK government’s debt levels have actually been increasing!) but for purely ideological reasons. Meanwhile UK society becomes ever more elitist as those who can afford it will still get good health care, university education, a pension and be looked after in old age, as for the rest of us….you fill in the blanks. Is this the sort of society we’re striving for?


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