Universities set for strikes and protests

Will the anger at higher education cuts gather force across the country?

Are we in line for widespread strike action and protests in British universities?

Higher education is one of the first areas to be hit by public spending cuts. According to the University and College Union (UCU), 15,000 jobs could be lost -- the majority of them academic posts -- while institutions may have to close courses and campuses. The Guardian reported yesterday that potential savings include more than 200 job losses at King's College, London, 700 at Leeds University and 340 at Sheffield Hallam, while entire campuses could be closed at Cumbria and Wolverhampton.

Staff at Leeds have voted in favour of strike action against these large-scale job cuts. The ballot had the highest turnout that UCU has ever seen, indicating that emotions are running high. Staff at Sussex University will also vote next week on whether to strike if the threat of compulsory redundancies is not withdrawn.

And how have students reacted to the budgetary crisis facing their universities? It is a mixed picture. At Leeds, the student union lobbied against strike action from staff, having received assurances that cuts would not affect students. But students at Sussex have launched a concerted protest effort, in recognition that "an attack on education workers is an attack on us".

One hundred and six students have occupied the top floor of a conference centre with the aim of disrupting the university's business interests. Meanwhile, the student union is urging students not to participate in the National Student Survey, in the hope that the threat of reduced survey ratings will put pressure on the university management.

There are two main issues at stake here. The first is the immediate concern of job losses and a shortage of university places for prospective students. The second is the deeper ideological concern about the value the state places upon university education -- is it being deliberately pushed towards private funding? And what is the proper role of business interest in education -- do we risk sacrificing the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself, and the study of the arts, in favour of target-driven, financially motivated research?

Industrial action by staff is clearly triggered mainly by the former, although ideological issues may come into play at some level. The student protests at Sussex, though, seem to incorporate both. Students in recent years have been accused of apathy, but their situation has the potential to draw attention to the deeper concerns underpinning the university crisis.

A wave of occupations of university buildings during the Gaza strike last year prompted speculation that we were witnessing a resurgence of student protest. It will be interesting to see whether protests against cuts gather force in the same way.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

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