The quiet privatisation of UK universities


In amongst recent announcements by Universities minster Jo Johnson was some welcome news, in terms of a Teaching Excellence Framework, but there was also some very worrying hints of what’s to come.

Certainly, as I indicated in prior posts, there is a need to curb falls in teaching standards. An attitude seems to have taken over the management of many UK universities which takes the view that teaching just happens magically by itself and that they can lump other responsibilities onto lecturers, requiring them to bring in income, do research and consultancy and fill out research grants. Inevitably where staff are judged against meeting such targets, teaching standards will slip and have been slipping (if not collapsing in some Russell group uni’s).

It is suggested that the fee’s universities can charge will be linked to their teaching excellence rating. This would be useful. Currently the ridiculous attitude of university management is that its better for me to devote hundreds of hours to getting a few tens of thousands in funding. While I’m happy to do this outside of term when I’ve some time free. But when the student’s are around, I’d argue that as they essentially pay 90% of our salaries, they should come first. Obviously in the current setup, this will be considered as the equivalent of playing hooky. In the post-TEF scenario where a small drop in teaching standards could cost us, say £1,000 a student in fees… of the student’s I personally teach that”s a cost to the uni of £282,000 a year (or a gain of the same if I can bring up standards)….well that’s a no brainer!

However, the devil is always in the detail. My main criticism of the REF (the Research Excellence Framework) is that it has been turned into little more than a pissing contest between the management of different uni’s. The danger is the TEF will include the same. The Jonty De Wolfe types who run the UK HEI’s will pour over the details and ultimately find ways to use and abuse the system, much like the REF. This is particularly likely if the TEF ends up ranking lecturer’s based on their contribution to Pedagogy (i.e. the scale of their Pedafile).

Also it has been argued that the real reason the REF exists is to simply justify why a handful of the UK’s elite uni’s gain most of the country’s research funding (ten receive over 50% of all the funds). If the rules of the REF are written such that Oxford and Cambridge do well, yet other uni’s who are rated highly by students and employers do badly, then its likely to have an impact of funding. This could easily put some of the UK’s universities onto a downward spiral towards bankruptcy.

Which brings some other elements of Jo Johnson’s speak into focus. He said “We need to be prepared for the fact that some providers may exit the market”….or to put that in English, he’s saying the government is willing to accept the bankruptcy of a uni or two. Now, as I’ve discussed before, I would question whether the government will stick to such a commitment once they realise the enormous political price they’ll pay. Consider how Nick Clegg’s decision to support tuition fees cost his party 49 seats and saw his majority collapse to a point that only strategic voting from Tories actually prevented him loosing his seat too.

Jo Johnson has also suggested he would like to see private universities enter the UK HEI sector. Such private uni’s have a less than glowing reputation in the US, being considered little more than corrupt and dubious degree mills. And they also have a reputation for collapsing (often leaving students in the lurch). Of course, given that many of the UK’s uni’s have been subject to de-facto privatisation over the last few years, this is merely the next logical step. I had to laugh when I heard it suggested that Scottish universities might loose their charitable status as a result of SNP reforms. The reality is they’ve not been charities for many years.

So while there is some good news here, I’m afraid most of it is bad news. At a time that the Germans are getting rid of tuition fees, the UK is looking at ways of putting up fees….massively! And the UK HEI sector has only itself to blame for this turn of events. As what we are seeing is the inevitable consequences of three decades of slow creeping privatisation. Like the frog in the pan of water, we’ve stayed in too long past boiling point.


5 thoughts on “The quiet privatisation of UK universities

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