Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Neoliberalizing education



The disastrous tuition fee rises will hurt part-time students at institutions like Birkbeck in particular, disenfranchising a generation, argues Sean Rillo Raczka, chair of Birkbeck students' union.

The tripling of university tuition fees from the 2012/13 academic year is clearly a disaster for those wishing to attend university in the traditional way at 18, and will no doubt be a massive barrier to participation for poorer students, as well as entrenching the reputation of some institutions as ‘second class’ (not to mention ‘economically unviable’). Widening participation will intrinsically be hit by the regressive impact of the Brown review.

As part-time students, Birkbeckians, in a way, have more to lose. Part-time fees will become regulated for the first time, and will no doubt be massively increased towards the £9,000 (current) maximum. Part-time students will be forced to take out government regulated loans to cover these sky-high fees. Currently less well off part-time students studying for their first degree can receive a grant from their local authority covering fees, and fundamentally this opportunity for a free education is a real incentive to those less willing to take on debt, or simply daunted by university. Part-time students will be forced to start paying their loans back after three and a half years if they are earning £21K or more, and let me remind you that the minimum length of a part-time degree is four years, so you’ll have to start paying even before graduating.

Loans will increase by 3.5% plus RPI yearly, a not inconsiderable sum, especially for the low paid, whose loans will become bigger and payable over a longer period than those earning high salaries due to this interest. So if you are on £19K when you graduate, you won’t be paying your loan back immediately, however the interest will start to accrue, and when you get a pay rise you’ll be liable for an even bigger debt for longer. This regime is simply unfair and goes against any definition of the word progressive. It will put off many working Londoners from coming to Birkbeck to get an education, people who are struggling to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Having to pay back your loan before graduation is one of the most astonishing and regressive parts of the government plans, but has attracted little public comment.

Students taking one-year foundation degrees, who then go straight on to do a degree, will also likely (we await final confirmation from the White Paper) have to start paying the first year of their loan back immediately, meaning even though they have 3 years remaining to collect their degree, the financial penalties of getting an education will have kicked in. These measures, along with cutting EMA (an allownance of £10-30 per week paid to 16-18 year olds from poorer families and in further education) and abolishing the right for the under 25s who were failed by the schools system to retake their GCSEs for free, will do much to restrict education in the coming years.

People have flocked to Birkbeck to gain an education in order to increase their job prospects and others simply for the joy of learning. Indeed Birkbeck is unique in offering those with no previous qualifications the chance to study. These changes are bad for us and should be resisted. Make no mistake, these fees move us towards the full marketisation of education, exclude the poor and judge education solely based on pounds earned for the institution (and latterly the exchequer). This anti-intellectual smashing of widening participation is emblematic of the ideological crusade of this government.

Current Birkbeck students will continue on the current fees regime, with a massive inflation-busting fees rise for 2011/12, but I fear for the very future of the institution and the students we cater for. Will Birkbeck turn into a profit-chasing factory for those doing vocational and work-funded qualifications (nothing wrong in vocational qualification I should add), or indeed just a place where those who can afford it are welcomed? What will happen to learning for advancement without work funding, or learning for pleasure?

As Birkbeck students we need to defend Birkbeck and our education, we must ensure that people can learn for the sake of learning, that education is based on ability, not ability or inclination to pay. The insidious idea that we should pay individually for our education is one that I think all those who value education and genuine lifelong learning should reject. Education is clearly a public good, and access to it should be as essential as access to healthcare.

As for cuts to higher education, the government have gone for the jugular, cutting all teaching funding for social sciences (fees are meant to replace this income), as well as implementing across the board cuts to each institution.

We see London Met – a widening participation institution in inner London with large numbers of working class and black students – being savagely attacked by the government and their own senior management. Seventy percent of courses will be cut, and many staff sacked. Those already on courses will be transferred to elsewhere, sometimes out of London – impossible for some with family or jobs here. The bulk of courses to be cut are in the arts and social sciences. A clear sign to less well off students that non-vocational or business-related courses are not for them. Which institution will be next to implement such draconian cuts?

Fees and cuts will disenfranchise a generation. How can politicians, who all obtained elite education paid for by the state, betray young people in this way? Pricing young people out of even basic qualifications is a clear indicator of the government’s priority. That is not to mention the effect on mature and retired students, who will be pushed out by marketisation and price increases.

What of the Birkbeck management, and indeed Vice Chancellors in general? I feel that (nearly) all university leaders have let down higher education, they have argued for their special interest, fought internecine battles for supremacy and been too scared to raise their voices in defence of education in order to keep their names on the Business Department’s cocktail party guest lists. This leads me to believe that some heads of college are actually more interested in running a business and making massive amounts of money, then defending education and academia, let alone students.

The senior management and governors of Birkbeck College (of which I am a dissenting member on this issue), however well intentioned, decided not to campaign against the Browne Review or government cuts; decided not to seek a coalition of Universities against these cuts; and decided, basically, to say nothing. In fact Birkbeck College sadly welcomes some aspects of the Browne Review, clearly against the interests of our students. I handed a petition signed by hundreds of students to a Governors meeting earlier this year, asking for even a mild public statement of disapproval on the cuts (whilst around 100 students protested outside the meeting). This was rejected, and my arguments dismissed. This is a sad state of affairs, as I feel the College has been too quick to deny the many pitfalls the institution will face under the new regime.

I hope Birkbeck can weather the storm of cuts and fees, and continue to offer a wide range of subjects to mature and part-time students, with entry based on potential and ability, not distant school exam grades, and continue to attract those who would not have otherwise thought of going to university, and those who wish to learn for pleasure. I and many others will continue to campaign at Birkbeck and beyond for a better vision of education for all.

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