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Trump-style universities headed for the UK

Britain's Higher Education Bill paves the way for dodgy universities in the UK.

Screengrab from Last Week Tonight feature on Trump University, fair use.

Ahead of the protest called by the NUS and UCU on Saturday, 19 November, two speakers at a 'United for Education' rally on Wednesday night give their thoughts on what’s wrong with the Higher Education Bill and why staff and students should oppose it.

The underlying objective of the HE Bill, which is currently working its way through parliament, is to facilitate a neoliberal, market-led model for higher education. The Bill represents a fundamental attack on the whole public university system. It will undermine the independence of academic research, instrumentalise teaching, drive up debt and devalue degrees.

Part of what is so pernicious about the HE Bill is the underhandedness of it – the tripling of tuition fees in 2010 was blatant and dramatic; the way that this Bill is being introduced is far more technical and even less accountable and designed to bore us into submission. Yet its effects could be far more lasting and damaging.

One of the key proposals is that for-profit providers will be able to set up universities because the threshold for obtaining degree-awarding powers will be lowered. Jo Johnson, the universities minister, has called these profit-making providers ‘challenger institutions’. We prefer to call them corporations. These will be large companies – ones that make huge profits and rely on exploitative practices – that will be allowed to start running universities, when they get degree-awarding powers.

The government claims that the existence of these institutions will help drive up teaching quality and facilitate students from all backgrounds to study at university. Like most neoliberal tropes, the Bill claims that this is about choice: the ability for essentially anybody (whether they have anything to do with higher education or not) to set up a university is apparently giving students choice.

Exactly who will be empowered by this choice? We only have to look across the Atlantic to see the consequences of a deregulated system. Consider the University of Phoenix, a for-profit university in the US, that trawls through homeless shelters looking for names to use so that it can access federal loans; a place that has a miniscule graduation rate because it’s focused on making money more than successfully educating people; a place so disreputable that even the Pentagon last year put it on probation because it had violated Department of Defence rules. Or, given the recent elevation of its namesake to president-elect, take Trump University, formerly known as the Trump Wealth Institute. True, it’s not an actual university which is why Trump himself is going to have to defend himself against three lawsuits that allege the making of false claims and racketeering. Trump’s business model is extreme but it’s also the logical outcome of a system that puts the desire for wealth and the pursuit of profit above all else.

The Bill is also set to introduce fierce competition between universities notably through the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Institutions, and subsequently individual courses, will be rated either bronze, silver or gold based on a series of metrics around student drop-out rates, student satisfaction and graduate employment. Yet, as the Alternative White Paper for Higher Education points out, these metrics ‘are only vaguely related to teaching. The inevitable “gaming” that would ensue will undermine teaching quality and the wider social purposes of HE.’ And, of course, a good result in the TEF will allow institutions to raise fees thus significantly increasing student debt while, at the same time, the government has frozen the threshold at which debt repayments start.

The whole system will be presided over by a new super-powerful regulator, the Office for Students, a quango so accountable to students that the government initially refused to have any students on its Board. The OfS is to be guided by the Secretary of State and that guidance will be ‘framed by reference to particular courses of study’. This is a charter for political interference. We’ve already seen it with cuts to arts and humanities and the bias towards the hard sciences.

There are two models of the university. One is the university as a factory – or perhaps, more accurately today, a supermarket – where students are churned out in relation to the needs of a highly stratified society. The other is the university as a place where new ideas are generated, where real innovation happens, and where received wisdom is challenged and dissent encouraged.

There has always been a tension between these models but vision of HE outlined in the new legislation will exacerbate these tensions and make it more difficult to ask tough questions, to research and teach independently of bureaucratic diktat, and to be critical of the status quo. And that’s quite apart from the PREVENT strategy and other exercises in monitoring staff and students in terms of what is acceptable to research, to study and to debate.

There is also the question of what the HE Bill will do to the conditions of the people that work in our universities. Its utilitarian emphasis on competition and choice means that higher education could yet turn into an under-resourced service industry staffed by workers on zero hours contracts and managed as heavily indebted, real estate portfolios with some teaching and research attached.

More and more people are now hostile to the idea that deregulated markets will deliver the public provision we need. That’s what the Corbyn phenomenon is about and, albeit in a distorted, degraded and disgusting way, the defeat of Clinton and the vote for Trump was partly an expression of the fact that neoliberalism just hasn’t delivered for millions of people and that ‘business as usual’ wasn’t going to cut it this time. As Cornel West put it recently: the election of Trump ‘was a desperate and xenophobic cry of human hearts for a way out of a disintegrating neoliberal order – a nostalgic return to an imaginary past of greatness.’

So we need both to vigorously challenge the racism that has been emboldened in recent months and, at the same time, to offer alternatives to a market system. So we should campaign, for example, to ensure that EU staff and students are fully protected in Brexit negotiations and follow the lead of staff at Rutgers University in the US who have called on their management, following Trump’s election, to ‘make Rutgers a sanctuary university’ which protects all communities from discrimination, violence and deportation. But we also have to campaign for higher education to be a right that is available to all those who want it.

We can take heart in watching the tens of thousands of students marching through the streets in opposition to Trump. We should learn from their anger and their energy; we cannot stand aside and let our universities have the meaning and the purpose and the life sucked out of them by a discredited neoliberal order. We need to see this as a state of emergency and to see Saturday’s demonstration as the start of a new movement designed to launch action across every campus with action that includes librarians, cleaners, students, porters and professors. People may be feeling scared, defensive and anxious but it’s in campaigning that we can rediscover our strength, our optimism and our ability to make a difference. Saturday’s demonstration is exactly what we need to put the demand for a free and accessible university education back in the headlines.

The demonstration assembles at 12 noon on Saturday November 19 in Park Lane and ends with a rally at Millbank.


About the authors

Feyzi Ismail is active in British anti-austerity and anti-war movements and teaches at SOAS. She writes regularly for Counterfire.

Des Freedman (@lazebnicis Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of ‘The Contradictions of Media Power’ (2014) and co-author (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) of ‘Misunderstanding the Internet’ (2nd edition, 2016).

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