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.


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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Michael Gove ran for PM to stop Boris Johnson - and the ruse has worked

The most popular leadership contender has just pulled out. 

While the Labour Party tears itself apart, the Tory party is running round like a headless chicken trying to find a new leader.

Boris Johnson, the celebrity blonde and former mayor of London, was always a hot favourite to succeed David cameron, especially after the virulently Remain Chancellor George Osborne's hopes were dashed by Brexit.

But this morning, his comrade-in-arms from the EU referendum, Michael Gove, decided to puncture his ascent. It is understood he only gave Johnson a few minutes' warning that he would stand. And he didn't hold back when he did, declaring: "Boris cannot provide the leadership".

The shock tactic worked - hours later, BoJo made the abrupt announcement he would not be running for leader.

Gove announced he too will run for the top job, to make the country "stronger and fairer".

Damningly for Boris, he continued: "I have repeatedly said that I do not want to be Prime Minister. That has always been my view. But events since last Thursday have weighed heavily with me.

"I respect and admire all the candidates running for the leadership. In particular, I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future.

"But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.

"I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership. I want there to be an open and positive debate about the path the country will now take. Whatever the verdict of that debate I will respect it. In the next few days I will lay out my plan for the United Kingdom which I hope can provide unity and change."

Johnson made his decision to pull out hours after the Gove upset. His campaign team was said to be livid by the intervention.

The former mayor of London told journalists who had gathered for what they thought was his campaign launch that the "prophets of doom" about Brexit were wrong.

But then the Leave campaigner ruled himself out of the contest for the new PM, saying: "Having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances of Parliament I have concluded that person cannot be me."

Known best for his controversial education reforms, Gove has attracted more support in his role at the Ministry of Justice - even if this is mainly for dismantling his predecessor Chris Grayling's hardline reforms. 

His decision to run comes hours after leaked emails suggested he and his wife did not trust Johnson's assurances on immmigration controls. 

But even if Gove has trounced Johnson, he'll have to push some others aside to get the keys to Number 10.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, turned submarine during the EU Referendum - she might have officially signed up for Remain but she almost completely disappeared from sight. Her repeated calls for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights have warmed the cockles of many a Daily Mail reader's heart (although she more quietly backtracked on that this morning). 

The blue-on-blue contest could be made more intense by the "blue collar dream team" of Welsh MP Stephen Crabb, who is running on a ticket with Business Secretary Sajid Javid. 

And one of the quiet stars of the EU referendum debate, Andrea Leadsom, has just thrown her hat in the ring as well. 

Leadsom already cuts a cool figure on the Treasury Select Committee, where staffers have long noted her star qualities. 

Liam Fox, a defence hawk and Leave campaigner best known for resigning after questionable dealings with an aide, is also running.

Jeremy Hunt, the controversial Health minister, has also said he's "very interested".

The candidates at a glance

Theresa May

Political experience: Home Secretary
EU referendum side: Remain
Best known for: Trying to deport Abu Qatada
She says: "Brexit means Brexit. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU."
They say: "Migrants: Woman With Guts To Tell The Truth" (Daily Mail)

Michael Gove

Political experience: Education and Justice 
EU referendum side: Leave
Best known for: Being hated by teachers
He says: " I do not want to be Prime Minister. That has always been my view. But events since last Thursday have weighed heavily with me."
They say: "
Michael Gove is the politest man in politics and one of the most abrasive, a charmer who cultivates enemies." (Ian Leslie)

Stephen Crabb

Political experience: Department for Work and Pensions
EU referendum side: Remain
Best known for: Being a working-class Tory
He says: "Nothing was handed to me on a plate"
They say: "Political soulmate" (Ruth Davidson)

Andrea Leadsom

Political experience: Energy and Climate Change and Treasury Select Committee
EU referendum side: Leave
Best known for: Campaiging to quit the EU
She says: "My absolute priority is securing Brexit, in line with the democratic mandate. Huge opportunity for our great country!"
They say: "With her financial background, Andrea lent much-needed weight to some of Brexit’s airier promises." (Allison Pearson)

Liam Fox

Political experience: Defence
EU referendum side: Leave
Best known for: Resigning over dealings with aide, Adam Werritty
He says: "We've just broken free from the European Union into a much wider and greater opportunity."
They say: "In a less shameless world, Liam Fox’s career would have ended in 2011" (Jonn Elledge)