The University and Colleges’ Union at Manchester Met recently took strike action over the threat of compulsory redundancies at the university’s Crewe campus. Closing the campus over the next three years initially meant that 370 academic jobs and support staff were at risk. After negotiations, there is now no clarity over the exact number but around 160 academic jobs are still being threatened.
Between 6 and 10 academic staff have received a redundancy notice for 17th August 2017 – and among them is the long-standing UCU branch officer at Crewe. University management cite its under-performance and lack of ‘financial and academic sustainability’ as the reasons for the closure. Manchester Met is the fifth largest university in the country, and has reserves of nearly £400 million, there is no economic need for the university to force through such a relatively small number of redundancies.
It seems clear, however, that the closing of the Cheshire campus should be seen in the larger context of changes happening in the higher education sector – the cutting of public funding for universities to the bone, the reliance on students’ tuition fees to replace this funding, and the sector being turned into an increasingly competitive market, with a focus on profitability.
This fundamental shift in the higher education sector from a focus on education as intrinsically valuable, to education as a commodity that can be bought and sold, means that universities are now considering students, not as learners, but as consumers. We have already seen, since tuition fees were first introduced, how a university education is becoming the preserve of those who can afford to pay - which means that for MMU, the Cheshire campus is becoming unprofitable.
Students at Cheshire are likely to be from lower income backgrounds, who, because accommodation and travel costs are unaffordable, have limited access to universities further afield. Similarly students with a disability or who have caring responsibilities, benefit from access to a local university. ‘The Case for MMU Cheshire’ report by UCU states that: ‘repeatedly these graduates note that, due to their various personal circumstances, most would not have been able to attend university were it not for the presence of the campus in Cheshire.’
These students deserve to have access to an education, but as tuition fees continue to rise, and so education becomes more unaffordable, there will be fewer potential students in Crewe – so for the university it makes sense to shift its focus to international students, who they can charge extortionate fees to. The closing of the Crewe campus will only make this situation worse – widening the gap between those who can access a university education and those who can’t.
The fact that Crewe is also a campus that is centered on arts subjects further suggests that it is not going to be profitable to the university in the near future. As the higher education bill comes into force, universities are going to be ranked by being given either a gold, silver or bronze status. This ranking will be based on the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ – a metric that incorporates student dropout rates, graduate employability and the scores from the NSS (National Student survey), which measures student satisfaction with their course. Students studying arts degrees are less easily and profitably employable, and so those degrees, already undervalued by the market logic of the system, will become even more so.
Besides this, the higher education bill is going to continue the ‘marketisation’ of the sector, by allowing for the creation of ‘for-profit’ universities (think Trump University in the US). It will also mean establishing an ‘Office for Students’, made up of government appointees, who will confer degree-awarding powers on universities. This Tory government favours marketisation, and so will be able to hold the threat of removing this power over universities who are not complying with the corporate model.
This model, which universities now aspire to, has led to a situation where university vice-chancellors receive an average salary of £277,834 – more than six times the average pay of their staff. It means the undervaluing of the lecturers who actually provide the ‘business’ of universities – education – the casualization of their labour, the proliferation of managers who only increase bureaucracy, and an emphasis on lecturers’ having to ensure their ‘output’ can be ‘monetised’. In the past it was thought that universities had a measure of social responsibility, but that is no longer the case. Crewe is a town of low school attainment, but instead of encouraging school leavers to go on to university, Manchester Met is taking away a really vital part of their opportunity to do so.
As students and lecturers we have a common cause. We should be working together to ensure that the future of higher education is not based around value for money, but around learning. We all have the right to a good education, and that means lecturers who have well-paid, secure jobs. That means universities that are publicly funded and accessible so the burden of fees is not put on individual students. That means valuing education for itself, not as a means to employment.
No more education cuts. Support the lecturers' strike. #weareallMMU
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