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19 January 2016

The Conservative plan for higher education is simple: it’s to sell it off

Scrapping maintenance grants is part of a long process, warns Michael Chessum.

By Michael Chessum

Today, MPs are voting on the scrapping of the last remaining student maintenance grants – a means tested sum of £3,387 which is currently paid to more than 500,000 of the poorest students in England. The National Union of Students has described the move as a matter of “grave concern” for widening participation, and, following a year-long campaign that saw a national demonstration in November, students will be rallying outside as the vote happens. And yet, if Labour hadn’t put it on the floor of the House of Commons, most MPs would never have voted on it at all: the government actually already put it through a committee by ten votes to eight on Thursday.

The purpose of today’s vote from Labour’s perspective is therefore twofold. It is an attempt to use a usually symbolic opposition day debate to reverse the policy; and, regardless of the outcome, it is a means of exposing Tory policy to public scrutiny. That public scrutiny should be uncomfortable for the government. Scrapping the grants and turning them into loans will have the effect of pushing the poorest students into more debt, adding to the disincentives to study. And because the system of student loans has such a poor return for the government, largely as a result of debt being so high that it will never be repaid, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the policy will save a paltry £270m.

But cutting maintenance grants is a very small part of the Tories’ plans for universities. On Friday, consultation closed on the higher education green paper. The proposals contained in the paper move the marketisation of the sector much further than anything envisaged under the Coalition government. At its core is tying future fee rises to a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – a mechanism that will make universities reliant on narrow definitions of success, most notably on feeding the needs of business and the labour market. Private providers will get degree awarding powers in four years. Tellingly, the government also plans to remove universities from Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation – declassifying them as a public body for the purposes of scrutiny. There will be no vote in parliament on most of this, and there are even rumours that the government will avoid one altogether.

Add all of these policies to the proposed scrapping of bursaries for nursing students and allied health professionals, and you get a picture of the kind of higher education system that the government is trying to create. There is to be no truly public support for students, no matter how poor they are, and no matter what they study. All of the costs of education – the costs of study and the costs of living – will be underwritten by a system of personal debt whose repayment terms may be forced to worsen in order to be sustainable to the public purse. Universities will be pushed deeper into the private sector. And it looks like there will be minimal parliamentary scrutiny for any of it.

The resistance to this agenda has not been insignificant, although it has yet to cohere into a sharp confrontation as it did in 2010. Earlier this month, thousands of student nurses marched through London to oppose the removal of their bursaries, chiming with a mood of revolt that is sweeping across staff in the NHS in the wake of the Junior Doctors’ dispute. Opposition to maintenance grants cuts has seen national mobilisation. And although it has been sluggish and confined to scathing policy briefings, the campaign against the wider HE reforms could yet pick up steam as part of a wider moment of rebellion. What all of these campaigning fragments now appear to have is a willing ally in the form of the Corbyn’s Labour Party – which is beginning to play a role in forcing points of confrontation over higher education policy.

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If the alliance between the student movement, education workers and the Labour front bench can form a longer-term collective strategy, there may yet be cause for hope for those who want to save higher education as a public service. The cross-party consensus that emerged during the Blair years that saw user contributions (or in this case graduate contributions) rather than progressive taxation as the route to sustainable public services was particularly corrosive in the university sector, where the privatisation of income streams through tuition fees has very quickly morphed into structural and institutional privatisation. At last, there is now a possibility for a radically different direction of travel.  

But for the campaign to save higher education there can certainly be no waiting and hoping for 2020, when the current outlook is so bleak. If today’s vote is worth anything, it will have to be as a launch pad for bigger acts of resistance. It is one thing to force the government’s agenda into the open, in spite of its attempts to keep it confined to policy consultations and committee-level proceedings. It is quite another to force it into retreat. 

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