By Sadie Robinson
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Defeat for government over higher education bill should encourage resistance

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Issue 2536
UCU union members struck last year over pay and conditions - and many want to stop the HE bill
UCU union members struck last year over pay and conditions – and many want to stop the HE bill (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Lords voted against the government yesterday, Monday, to support an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill. The amendment said that universities must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

The Tories want their bill to give businesses power to set up and run universities, and to make higher education more “competitive”. The amendment makes that harder.

Sean Wallis is vice president of the UCU union at University College London and is on the union’s national executive committee. He has helped draw up an alternative white paper to oppose the government’s attacks.

Sean told Socialist Worker the Lords’ amendment is important because “it represents the clash of two very different ideological perspectives on the purpose of a university”.

He explained, “The premise of the HE bill is that a university is a kind of ‘higher education provider’ – like a toothpaste provider. The government has defined universities in this crass way because it opens the door to private companies setting up campuses and charging high tuition fees.

“Stating that ‘a university must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech’ makes a very big distinction between a university and a private company.”


Sean stressed how this distinction makes a critical difference. “If you are a scientist working for a private company and you publish research criticising a commercial partner of your employer, you will almost certainly be fired,” he said.

“The engineering researchers in the US who blew the whistle on Volkswagen were probably funded by the automobile industry and needed their cooperation to test vehicles. But they found a big discrepancy between the industry’s published figures on emissions and what they saw in the lab.

“They were able to publish the results because they were protected by the principle of academic freedom – whistle-blowing clauses in their contracts.”

Sean said the defeat for the government in the Lords should spur campaigners to keep fighting the HE bill. “This amendment is a vindication of all those who have got organised to oppose the bill,” he said.

“The bill includes clauses that allow private companies to brand themselves as a university from day one. They would get the power to write degree programmes without any oversight.

“The amendment should be the start of many amendments that need to remove other clauses from the bill.”

When university workers struck over pay and conditions last year, fury at the HE bill had fuelled the desire of many to resist. The defeat should spur campaigners on to keep fighting against the whole of the HE bill.

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