It’s an education, all right: Laurie Penny on the commercialization of universities

British universities now see themselves as companies, and students are the losers.

Anyone who believes that knowledge has no price should look away now. For the past month I've been involved with an investigation for Channel 4's Dispatches that revealed just how far the market has penetrated higher education. We discovered highly paid managerial elites running universities as factories where students are little more than customers shopping for degrees.

We started with the top university bosses, who have been lobbying for a rise in tuition fees for years. Vice-chancellors take home an average salary of £254,000, are often given free accommodation, and claim thousands in expenses.

Take Brian Cantor from York University, who last year took home nearly £255,000 even as York faced a £1.48m cut in state funding. His expenses totalled £135,000 over three years - and then there's his grace-and-favour home and his private property portfolio in Mont Blanc, France, which is managed for him by his secretary in York. Cantor nonetheless found time to launch a public attack on desperate teachers and lecturers striking against a savage pensions cut. (York University said all his expenses were vital to the commercial success of the institution.)

Vice-chancellors claim that, "like chief executives", they deserve their huge salaries because theirs is a stressful job. How curious, then, that some others find the time to earn tens of thousands of pounds on the boards of drugs companies and arms dealerships. The notion that such appointments might cause a conflict of interest in how research funding is allocated is dismissed by university bosses as they accept payments from the likes of AstraZeneca and Shorts.

British universities now see themselves as companies: in order to boost profits, many have turned their attention to the £26,000 annual fees that can be squeezed from a rich minority of non-EU students. Agents are paid on commission to peddle degree services aggressively in India and the Gulf, and many universities are opening franchises abroad.

Consumerversities

Let's join some dots. The coalition government has justified its decision to triple university fees for home students by citing the expansion of student numbers over the past decade. If we want more students to attend, the logic goes, we need to find the extra money from somewhere.

The government promised that only top institutions would charge the full £9,000 but - in a move entirely unforeseen by all but a few hundred thousand protesters - nearly every university has decided to do so. To finance these debts, the coalition may have to cut domestic student numbers and recruit more from abroad, leaving us, as if by magic, with a small pool of rich international student-consumers.

Everything has its price. Our universities were once publicly owned and financed, free for anyone to attend, as much a part of the common wealth of Britain as our forests, rivers and mines. And just like the mines, rivers and forests, higher education is being plundered piece by piece,mortgaging the future of education for short-term profit. No wonder students won't stand for it.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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