Privatisation by stealth?

Mandelson remains unapologetic about drastic cuts to university budgets.

The bitter dispute between the government and universities over funding rolled on today, as vice-chancellors warned that swingeing cuts will leave thousands of students without a university place this year.

The representative group Universities UK said that last year, about 160,000 students who applied didn't get a place. With at least 75,000 extra expected to apply this year, there will simply be too many students, and no extra funds to help accommodate them.

The government, perhaps unsurprisingly for a party that has made so much of its commitment to education, is defensive.

The higher education minister, David Lammy, has accused universities of "scaremongering", echoing Peter Mandelson in defending Labour's record of spending on higher education. But I'm not sure whether "Well, they've had their turn" is a very effective case.

Mandelson has been keen to downplay the impact that the cuts will have. Writing in the Guardian last month -- a piece provocatively titled "Universities will benefit from tighter budgets in the long term" -- he set out why he thinks universities need not feel the pinch. His comments were telling:

Tighter budgets can be a spur to further diversifying the funding of British universities. It can also focus minds on teaching and research excellence and new ways of delivering higher education. Both of these trends are already part of the picture of British higher education. Both need to become more so.

The Business Secretary praised universities that open their doors to international students, who pay full fees, and those that build "more collaborative relationships with business and industry to fund research and teaching" (although he did not explain precisely how intense pressure on teaching and research budgets might help a focus on "excellence").

The merger last year of two departments to create the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills caused controversy among academics. Its fusion of education and commerce appeared to be further evidence of New Labour's oft-cited "privatisation by stealth".

Certainly, the emphasis on "competition" and "choice" in Mandelson's article echoes the language surrounding foundation hospitals, city academies and private finance initiatives.

It is this blithe confidence that universities will be able to get the money from somewhere -- as they will, indeed, be forced to do -- that allows Mandelson to brush off the potentially disastrous impact on participation and quality. (He dismisses figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies as "purely speculative" and says that the cuts aren't that much, really.)

He also implies that investment over the past decade will act as a buffer, but this is not the case: much of this spending has been targeted at getting more people into university, and the associated costs. As University UK's statement today illustrates, the combination of cuts and this increased number of students will soon start to pose a grave problem.

The unsympathetic stance adopted by the government, and Mandelson's statements that universities should, in effect, just shut up and look elsewhere for funds will confirm many people's worst fears that we have begun the slow but steady slide towards a privatised system in which both quality and equality are undermined.

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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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Our trade unions are doing more for women than ever before

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women.

Reading Carole Easton’s article on women and unions was puzzling and disappointing in equal measure. Puzzling because it paints a picture of trade unions which bears little resemblance to the movement I know and love. Disappointing because it presents a false image of trade unions to women readers just at a time when women need strong trade unions more than ever.

While it is right to say that too little progress has been made in closing the gender pay gap or tackling the scourge of zero hour contracts, it is wrong to suggest that trade unions have been twiddling their thumbs.

Like our friends at the Young Women’s Trust, equality is at the heart of what unions do. This work isn’t measured in the number of high-profile women we have at the forefront of our movement – although we’re not doing too badly there, as anyone will attest who has seen Frances O’Grady, the first female general secretary of the TUC, speaking out for ordinary women workers.  

Trade unions contribute to equality for our 3 million women members every day. For us, that’s about the thousands of workplace reps supporting individual women facing discrimination or harassment. It’s about health and safety reps negotiating for protective clothing and better workplace policies on the menopause, terminal illness and many more issues. Our work is unions taking employment tribunal cases on behalf of women who could never afford the tribunal fees without us. And always, at the heart of everything, our work is about the collective power of workers joining together to bargain for fair pay and decent work.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women. Several unions have successfully organised cleaners, supported them to take strike action for better pay, and won. The RMT is just one example of many. Unite is busy organising London’s low-paid and often exploited hotel workers. Unison organises teaching assistants, fights for better pay and conditions, and even runs a Skills for Schools project to help TAs develop in their careers. Unison and the National Union of Teachers – both unions with over 75% female membership – organise childcare workers and fight not just for better pay but also for training and development opportunities. Over in the retail sector, Usdaw and GMB are fighting the good fight for their women members in supermarkets and shops, not just on pay but on pensions, health and safety, carers’ leave and protection from violence at work.

Women have much to gain from trade union membership. Male union members are paid 7.8 per cent more than men who aren’t in a union – but women union members are paid 30 per cent more than non-members. A recent EHRC report on pregnancy discrimination found that employers who recognised unions were less likely to discriminate against their pregnant employees.

Yes, it’s true that too few young women are union members. This summer, the TUC and our member unions will launch a new organising and campaigning effort to spread the benefits of union membership and attract a new generation of women (and men).

But starting new women-only unions is no form of progress. That’s where we started out over 100 years ago. Now women workers are at the heart of all our unions, across all sectors. Women’s concerns at work are trade union concerns. And every day we make practical progress towards women’s equality at work through patient representation and negotiation and active campaigning to challenge bad bosses. Young Women’s Trust should work with us to get more women the benefit of union membership.  

Scarlet Harris is women's equality policy officer at the TUC