This blog highlights five issues that will or could dramatically worsen the position of students next year and in years to come, they are:
- Hidden fee increases
- Restructuring and Course Closures
- A worse quality of education
- A crisis of social mobility
- The broader context
The five issues also form five reasons why you need to get involved in a movement with the capability of stopping them, slowing them down or even pushing the tide in the other direction and starting to improve the position of students and their education.
1) Hidden fee increases- This one alone should be getting every student at Birmingham out on the streets on November the 21st. The government can, at any time and even retrospectively, change the terms on which you pay back your £9000 loan, meaning that the amount of money you pay back to them could drastically change. This takes place by ministerial decree so can happen very quickly and without parliamentary scrutiny. They can change four things that could drastically worsen your bank balance for the next 30 years:
Interest Rate: at the moment the interest you pay on your loan ranges from inflation to inflation plus 3% depending on how much you earn. The government can increase this to anything they want and can remove the progressive element of it
Repayment Threshold: The repayment threshold is the amount of income that you do not pay towards your student loan. At the moment this stands at £21,000 but it could be reduced to as little as nothing
Repayment Rate: The repayment rate is the amount you pay back over the repayment threshold. It currently stands at 9% but could again be increased very quickly.
Date debt is cleared: At the moment any outstanding student debt is written off after 30 years, however, in the worst case, this could be removed and then student debt would follow you to the grave.
What this in effect means is that in ten years if the government decides it is low on money it can totally alter repayment terms on loans issued years earlier. Students are at constant risk of having the relatively nice government backed loans converted into what they have in America, the kind of loans that destroy lives.
The only thing that exists to stop the government doing this is the potential of the student movement to resist them. We need to show them that if they try to remove the concessions we won in 2010, they will face a similar if not bigger mobilization. This is the role of a demo; it demonstrates to the government, the public and the media the power of the student movement and if successful demonstrates the message that we are not to be crossed.
2) ‘Restructuring’ and Course Closures- The supposed reason for the raising of the fees and the reforms to higher education was to put ‘students at the heart of the system’ and give students more ‘choice’. In reality the opposite is true; our chance to choose from a diversity of different subjects and different teaching methods is being eroded. At the University of Birmingham this process of eroding choice is being taken both at course level and within courses. In 2009 the sociology department was closed down along with a number of its programs, this was followed last year by the English Language and Literature in Education and an attempt to close the Biological Recording Course (http://officerblogs.com/vpea/high-profile-campaign-saves-course/). Before the summer a review of the institute of Archaeology and Antiquity recommended that it be broken up, 20 full time staff fired and the archaeology department and course cut.
For departments and courses that are not being cut the university operates a rolling program of reviews. In the last few years the point of these reviews appears to be limiting and homogenizing the content that is delivered by the department. These reviews are not limited to a certain type of course but have, or will, look at courses as diverse as law, social policy, maths and cancer studies. The problem is both local and national in that government policy incentivises homogeneity but Birmingham management are cutting far more zealously than they need to. You can sign a petition against course closures here.
3) Worse quality of education- Birmingham University’s desire to compete in the new quasi-market in higher education is leading to a hollowing out. By this I mean that resources are diverted from improving or maintaining the quality of the university and into making it appear quality. This manifests itself in a number of ways: at the same time as cutting teaching budgets Birmingham is increasing its spending on things like advertising, open days and making the campus look nice; in high level meetings managers talk about how academics shouldn’t be giving ‘impolite’ feedback just before students fill in the NSS; support for international students is frontloaded into flashy introduction booklets and international recruitment centres over the kind of support they need when they get here; and entire courses are cut just to artificially increase entry tariffs in league tables.
No one in a senior position in this university is working to make the university qualitatively better, rather they spend their time thinking about how to increase (often by gaming) a set of statistics. This kind of gap between the image and the reality of an education is the outcome of a market or consumer relationship and can only be changed through rejecting that relationship. Rather than being passive consumers we need to actively fight for a quality education. At the same time this cannot happen at only one campus it needs to be happening at the same time as part of a national movement.
4 Crisis of Social Mobility- For a long time in Britain higher education served the purpose of facilitating and increasing social mobility. No fees and a universal maintenance grant meant that higher education was open to everyone who got the grades and the expansion of university places opened the opportunity to more and more people. Though the elite universities (with the richest students in them) maintained some of their privileges a stable funding environment began to close the gap between the quality and value of different universities.
Today the opposite is increasingly becoming true, higher education serves as a way for the rich to entrench their privilege and pass it onto their children. The government have replaced the stable funding environment that led to a convergence in quality and have instead created a quasi-market system designed to concentrate funding at the top and so that some universities have to fail. It is not only universities at the bottom of the league tables that are in danger of failing because the government is using a ‘core and margin’ model of funding to push universities into two tiers; elite research intensive universities at the top and badly funded, still very expensive and extremely poor quality at the bottom. This is the beginnings of a system like what takes place in the United States where the poor pay through the nose to attend badly funded or even fraudulent universities and the rich can simply buy their way into the most prestigious institutions.
This process is being worsened by the decisions of the government and vice chancellors towards access funding. They are pressuring universities to take money out of bursaries and spend it on fee waivers (lower fees). Fee waivers are no help to disadvantaged students, who receive no money up front when they actually need it. Fee waivers only provide financial benefit to graduates earning significantly above the average wage and only towards the ends of their careers; IE when they don’t need it. The reason the government is pushing fee-waivers onto universities is because they are a form of financial support, not for students, but for themselves; if fees are less than the government has to pay less in loans. University administrations can choose to allocate their income towards bursaries but most of them don’t, choosing political favour with the government over their own students.
5 The broader context- Students don’t live in a bubble isolated from what takes place in society around us; and the society around us is going to shit. Issues like the attack on disability benefit, the criminalization of international students, and the destruction of the NHS are affecting students right now. And when we leave university we are faced with the choice of exorbitant fees to stay in education or a jobs market of plummeting pay and conditions, and being made to work for free through unpaid internships and workfare, all the time faced with a huge unstable debt These attacks are happening and will continue to happen until there is a movement capable of stopping them.
This presents two pressing reasons to get involved in the student movement. The first is that an important part of any wider movement is bound to include a student element. We need to be organising together with the rest of the people standing against austerity. The second is that through organising in the student movement you can gain skills that can be used for the rest of your life. Whether it is abilities like writing, speaking publicly, and organizing, or knowledge of issues like the law, media, and government policy the training you can get in the student movement is invaluable.
How to get involved
Defend Education is a group of University of Birmingham students campaigning for a free, accessible and democratic system of public higher education.
Like the Facebook page ‘Defend Education Birmingham’ at: https://www.facebook.com/defendeducationbrum
Follow it on twitter: https://twitter.com/DefendEdBrum
Come to the meetings every Monday at 6pm
Guild of Students activism training Saturday the 6th of October 11pm in Guild Council Chambers, features sessions on a range of issues and skills.
TUC National Demo 20th of October, demonstration against austerity ‘for a future that works’ last time the TUC demo attracted half a million people
NUS Demonstration 21st of November, central to building a movement against the points raised above
 A very good example of this is the University of Phoenix, once the biggest private university in the US, which takes the largest amount of government aid for poor students. The graduation rate at the university is 16% with the rate on its South California campus 6% and the rate on its online programs 4%. It has been sued a number of times by its own students and the federal government for fraud (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/education/11phoenix.html?_r=1). The owner of the University of Phoenix is the Apollo group and David Willets- the universities minister- has met with the Apollo group on numerous occasions as well as having given Apollo-owned BPP college university status. The meetings were to discuss how private providers could best be introduced into the British system.