Friday, 9 July 2010

Free thinking not fee thinking: the struggle for our universities

A fellow activist here in Tyneside interviewed people locally for this excellent Counterfire article - on what's happening in our universities, and why we urgently need to turn the tide against marketisation and cuts.

'Cuts to universities will mean fewer students with fewer facilities, with more competition for places - but also more companies making a profit out of education.

At a time of unprecedented demand for places in higher education, savage government cuts will mean that around 200,000 young people will be unable to find a university place this September.

Universities are faced with cuts of £1.2 billion between now and 2013. The recent budget slashed £200 million from universities' income.

That's only part of the picture though, as fewer than 1 in 5 young people from the most disadvantaged areas of the UK enter higher education compared to 1 in 2 from the most advantaged areas.

Once at university, young people find that the 'student experience' is often very different to that set out in the institution's glossy brochure.

Jean, a lecturer at a university in the north-east of England is concerned about the impact of the cuts on the student experience. She said:

"Seminar groups are already larger than they should be. With 25 students in a classroom it's difficult, if not impossible, to have an in-depth debate about issues being covered or to give support to students who may be struggling with the subject.

Resources are already in short supply. We have students complaining that books listed as essential reading for some modules are not available in the library."

A student from the same university said:

"Access to books and journals is an absolute joke... we've had a situation where over 200 first and second year students have needed access to the same book to complete assignments - and there was about 12 copies to go around!"

Another significant issue in higher education today is the extent to which universities are run like businesses. Students are 'customers' in an increasingly privatised education system.

Many aspects of university life such as catering and cleaning are now routinely contracted out to private companies.

But private companies also manage and deliver provision for students with disabilities who have additional support needs. Ray is an education support worker for a private company based within a university in the north-east of England.

Poorly paid and on an hourly contract, he has serious concerns about the level and quality of support he and his co-workers are able to offer to students. He said:

"We are unable to provide the continuous support that some students need because of funding implications.

We are unable to get to know the students (the company refers to them as 'service users') on anything but a superficial level, due to the restrictions in our remit and strict rules on any communication that is not sanctioned by the company.

I find it deeply distasteful that a private business, which is ultimately about making a profit, is allowed to do so with some of the most vulnerable people in society."

Savage cuts and increased privatisation in higher education will prevent many working class young people from being able to enter higher education.

These cuts are part of wider attacks on the welfare state. In the months to come, campaigns that link students, lecturers and other staff in universities and colleges with workers in other areas of the public sector, will be essential to resist the cuts and the dismantling of the welfare state.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.'


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