By Jim Wolfreys
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Degrees of marketisation

This article is over 10 years, 10 months old
The new Higher Education White Paper marks a step change in the neoliberal transformation of universities. Jim Wolfreys looks at the ideology behind the government's plans, what it will mean for students, staff and the nature of teaching, and how we can resist
Issue 362

The government’s Higher Education White Paper will disrupt and potentially break up the existing system of higher education in England, deterring poorer students from university, subordinating teaching and research to the logic of privatisation and competition, and paving the way for the closure both of courses and of entire institutions.

It makes claims about putting “students at the heart of the system” and “excellent teaching back at the heart of every student’s university experience” that are flatly and comprehensively contradicted by the entire content of the document.

Indeed, the White Paper, co-authored by David “Two Brains” Willetts, the allegedly super-intelligent Minister for Universities and Science, and the hapless Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, contains a series of assertions that are so transparently false that the whole document could serve as a case study for the claim that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies”.

It is written in the language of management-speak, conjugated in what Stefan Collini has called the “mission statement present”. It is the language of a thousand PowerPoint presentations by besuited university managers, the slimy language of Blair and Cameron, the unconvincing robotic language of Miliband and Clegg. It is the language of today’s neoliberal offensive, articulating an orthodoxy that survives by default and by force, pushing an agenda that has the potential to unite unprecedented numbers in defence of our schools, our colleges and our universities.

No choice

The government is to reduce its block grant for university teaching by 80 percent, cutting funding by £3 billion. The shortfall is to be picked up by students, whose minimum level of fees will increase by almost 50 percent to £6,000, rising to a maximum of £9,000 a year. As a consequence of this decision, average debt levels on graduation for students in England will rise from around £26,000 for those starting courses this September to around £60,000 for those taking up university places under the new fees regime in 2012. Yet the White Paper repeatedly makes claims that higher education will be “more affordable for everyone”and that “putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful”.

The amount of money graduates are liable to repay will double from around £35 billion this year to almost £70 billion in six years time (more than current levels for total credit card debt in the UK). Anyone earning over £21,000 after graduation will have to pay back 9 percent of all they earn over that threshold, with interest rates charged up to a maximum of inflation plus 3 percent according to income. This will leave the majority of graduates paying off their debt for most of their working lives. Combined with increases to national insurance and pension payments graduates will effectively be taxed at a rate of 45 percent on earnings over £21,000. Since the loans will not cover the costs of full-time education, additional debts to banks and other lenders will further increase the burden.

The government expects to write off 30 percent of the loans as uncollectable but, ominously, leaves scope in the White Paper for selling off its loans portfolio to private companies. The Rothschild Group has been tasked with assessing how to proceed with the sale of government loan holdings. The paper claims that this should not result in worse conditions of repayment for borrowers but no guarantees are offered.

The “primary goal”‘ of Willetts and Cable’s plans is allegedly “to improve the quality of students’ academic experience and to increase their educational gain”. They identify some of the elements that a “high-quality learning experience” should contain, among them class size, quality of feedback, contact with academics and the proportion of teaching undertaken by full-time staff. Yet virtually the entire chapter on teaching is taken up not with measures designed to enhance it, but with exhortations to increase the volume of information available to prospective consumers regarding the “experience” offered by each university.

The preoccupation is not with what happens, but with the narrative that can be presented about what happens. In other words, it is not the quality of learning and teaching that concerns Cable and Willetts, but the marketing and branding of universities. How could it be otherwise when the impact of government policy has already produced a wave of redundancies and course closures, pushing up staff-student ratios and diminishing the reality of student life? London Met has already scrapped 70 percent of its courses, a move that its vice-chancellor, faithful to government doublespeak, has justified on the grounds that this will offer “better value” for students.

Resources are therefore likely to be directed away from teaching and research towards auditing, branding and the pursuit of “a seamless customer experience”. Independent and critical thought, intellectual curiosity, academic integrity, autonomy and cooperation are all to be subordinated to the dreary utilitarian vision of a ruthlessly competitive “market” where the role of students is simply to “take their custom to the places offering good value for money”.

State-driven competition

Having railroaded through the most controversial tuition fee rises last year, the government found itself with a problem. Research, teaching and the “student experience” are a long way down its list of priorities. What it really wants to create is a highly differentiated system that reasserts elite institutions as the preserve of the most affluent, forces the former polytechnics back into offering predominantly vocational courses for working class students and opens the higher education “market” up to private providers seeking to turn public funds (made available to them via student loans) into profit.

Its spending calculations, moreover, were based on average fees of £7,500. But most vice-chancellors decided to charge the full £9,000. It has therefore come up with mechanisms designed to produce greater competition among universities chasing highly qualified students, forcing those who lose out to charge lower fees and reorient their teaching priorities, and to allow private firms to leach students away from less prestigious institutions, leaving some of theses vulnurable to closure.

At present each university is allocated a quota of students, an admissions target which, if exceeded, results in a fine. The White Paper proposes to take all those achieving A-level grades of AAB or above – around 65,000 students – out of the quota and make universities compete for their “custom”. With these numbers removed from their regular intake, some universities will run the risk of not covering their costs if they fail to recruit enough AAB students. The likelihood here is that a small number of elite institutions will expand by picking up more highly qualified students, creating difficulties for some of the universities that lose out, the solution to which will be to cut fees and compete for students with lower grades.

Like a game of musical chairs, the government intends to remove increasing numbers of students from the quotas every year, ratcheting up the competition and increasing the likelihood that more universities will find themselves in crisis.

At the other end of the scale, 20,000 places will be removed from the quotas for institutions with average fees of £7,500 to fight over. This, the document mendaciously claims, will make it easier for “non-traditional providers…to expand to meet demand”. Yet this is a demand artificially manufactured by Cable and Willetts simply to provide a pool of students for private companies hoping to profit from its newly expanded loan market.

The immediate impact of these changes will be to create uncertainty and instability. The White Paper proposes to make it easier for private providers to attain university status and gain degree-awarding powers, to recruit students who receive public money in the form of loans, and to remove students sponsored by private companies from the quota system. The great beneficiaries will be outfits like BPP, a subsidiary of the Apollo group, a parasitic outfit feeding off the sub-prime student loan market in the US with a track record of misleading potential students and investors. In 2008, at Apollo’s flagship university in Phoenix, the graduation rate was 9 percent.


This is a paper based on contradictions and lies. It claims to be a response to the debt crisis, but will create unprecedented levels of graduate debt and government loans, a significant proportion of which will be written off. It proposes to cut bureaucracy but details measure after measure that will increase it. It champions teaching but will do nothing to improve it. It claims to seek a “level playing field” for higher education providers, but stacks the odds against most existing institutions for the benefit of an elite few and a new breed of spiv privateers. Having scrapped the Educational Maintenance Allowance and shifted the cost of university teaching from the state to individual students, Willetts and Cable make the fatuous assertion that it is universities themselves that “must take more responsibility for increasing social mobility”.

The government is attempting to dismantle the existing university system in England. In the process it has created the potential for everyone involved in higher education to unite in its defence. Professors and lecturers, students and administrative staff, all have an interest in resisting this White Paper.

As the new term gets under way, staff and students will need to organise meetings to discuss the attacks and prepare our resistance. The Alternative White Paper produced by the Campaign for the Public University provides a useful platform for a broad-based defence of our universities. The Education Activist Network conference on 29 October will be an important national focus for our resistance. On 26 October the lobby of parliament over pensions organised by UCU and the other teaching unions will see this resistance take to the streets as we build for mass action against the government on 30 November.

Last year the government was bloodied and shaken by the ferocity of the anger it generated on campuses. This year we have the chance to use our collective power – strikes, occupations, demonstrations – to shut down our universities and reclaim them from a government that wants to turn them from places of learning into temples of profit.

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