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From The Socialist newspaper, 21 September 2016

New Tory attacks on Higher Education - a programme to fight back

João Félix, Cardiff University Socialist Students
Socialist Students marching against fees, cuts and poverty pay, photo by Sarah Wrack

Socialist Students marching against fees, cuts and poverty pay, photo by Sarah Wrack   (Click to enlarge)

The beginning of a new academic year brings fresh attacks on higher education (HE) but also a renewed will to fight them.

HE students and workers have long been victims of successive governments' austerity measures - a sharp increase in tuition fees, staggering rent hikes, reduction of funding and resources, attacks on university workers' rights, etc.

This is the result of a policy to change universities from being places for the betterment of individuals and society to 'jobs-factories', where education is a commodity to be bought and sold.

The Tory government's HE Bill represents one of the most serious attempts at privatising this sector. The raising of the £9,000 cap on tuition fees, the legal and regulatory changes to facilitate the creation and operation of for-profit universities, as well as the implementation of the widely criticised teaching excellence framework, are all part of a vision to make public higher education part of the marketplace.

Public universities that perform well according to the new teaching excellence framework and the research excellence framework (which will mainly measure employability, graduate average earnings and public and private grants), will be allowed to raise fees by up to £250 a year.

Meanwhile, privately funded universities will have a favourable terrain in which to grow, with a reduction of regulation and the fact that they do not need to achieve the same standard as public universities.

For example, public universities are required to present a balanced and diverse curriculum and a robust body of research, while private universities don't have these requirements. Not being obligated to carry out research dramatically increases their profits potential.

The bill is telling in its wording: "Competition between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game, offering consumers a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost. Higher education is no exception."

Education commodity

University students will now leave university with an average £35,000 to £40,000 debt on student loans, having been subject to an education tailored for a "jobs market" that changes with the whims of capitalism.

With all this stress and pressure - the cuts in support services, and an overworked and underpaid staff - it's no wonder that students are now experiencing staggering levels of mental health and stress problems.

At the same time, students from working class and minority backgrounds are increasingly discouraged from attending university, due to the financial burden it would impose on them and their families.

International students have been particularly affected by the attacks on education, with tuition fees double or triple those of UK and EU students.

They also experience difficulties arising from a vicious immigration policy, presided over in particular by the previous home secretary and now prime minister, Theresa May.

International students are hindered by expensive and cumbersome bureaucracy and are often immediately deported when they finish their courses.

The attack on international students is appalling and shows the level of capitalist exploitation of education. Every student, regardless of their origin, should have the right and be provided the means to a free, high-quality, accessible education.

Staff and students unite

Higher education staff have faced a pay loss of 14.5%, in real terms, since 2009. This is especially true for women workers in HE who face a gender pay gap of 12.3%, approximately £6,000 a year, relative to male academics.

But this is not all. Casualisation is rife in the HE sector, with more than 75,000 staff in casual contracts and at least 21,000 on zero-hour contracts. It is also not uncommon for university workers to work twice as many hours as they are actually paid for in order to satisfy all their contractual obligations.

This shows that HE staff, as well as students, are being exploited by a system with a business-like mentality and a profit objective.

I completed my bachelor's degree in Portugal and my master's in the UK. I have witnessed, and felt, the consequences of the cuts, privatisation and attacks on public services, including higher education, in both countries.

I have been affected by the increase in tuition fees and cuts in education funding - which dramatically lowered the quality and accessibility of education, especially stopping people from working class and disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to better themselves and society.

Our struggle for free, high-quality and accessible education is not limited to the UK, it is international. Workers and youth across the world are subject to the same attacks.

Education is not isolated from the rest of society. The attacks I describe are part of a wider strategy of underfunding, cutting and privatising our public services, sacrificing our living and working standards in the name of profit.

We need to fight back to defend education and our public services, as well as fighting for a society that provides for all, not for the few.

How do we fight back?

We organise. Only a wide and coordinated movement of students and staff, linked to the wider struggles of workers and the labour movement, will be able to stop and reverse the current attacks and to achieve a high-quality HE that is free, accessible and fair for all.

The National Demonstration for Education on 19 November, organised by the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, (the unions of students and academic staff), is a step forward but is not enough to achieve a free, public, high-quality and fair higher education. That requires building a mass, sustained education movement.

The fight for socialist education policies, like the ones Jeremy Corbyn has pledged, are paramount in the struggle for a public and free university and college system. A system that everyone can enjoy and that will provide a diversified, interesting and stimulating ex-perience, for students, workers and the wider community.

We need to link up the struggles of the HE community to the wider struggles of workers and working class communities.

In the end, it is necessary to completely change the social and economic system from one based on private property and profit, to a democratically planned society which satisfies the needs and aspirations of the many.

Only a socialist society will give us the education we deserve.

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