On Practicing What You Preach


Image: http://media.challengeofabigman.com/uploads/2014/02/practice-what-you-preach1.jpg

An article that I wrote with Ana Salvi on the pedagogical approach to our workshop as part of the Beyond the Neoliberal University conference was published in Post-16 Educator. The editors have kindly agreed that I can re-publish this article on my blog, you can find the original pdf: PSE 81 Ridley and Salvi only, and the Post-16 Educator website here.

On practicing what you preach: a radically democratic approach to conference workshops

On Friday 18th September, Coventry University UCU branch hosted a one-day conference entitled ‘Beyond the Neoliberal University: Critical Pedagogy and Activism’. The idea of a conference was to bring together people interested in Critical Pedagogy with UCU and other trade union activists and student activists who are engaged practically with the effects and consequences of the ways universities have changed. The aim was to have not so much the same old academic conference with ‘experts’ speaking to/at a passive, increasingly sleepy audience, but to host a participatory event that brought together the experience, expertise and ideas of all those people attending. How far the event achieved this aim is a matter for those attending to decide, but in this article, we wish to reflect on the success of a particular workshop that formed a part of the conference, one which was ‘facilitated’ by the authors of this piece, and was concerned with ‘Working in, against and beyond neoliberal education’.

In this workshop, it was of particular importance to us to make sure the format was as participatory as possible. As the entire day centred on ‘critical pedagogy’, we really wanted to make sure we were ‘practicing what we preached’. How many academic conferences with ‘radical’ or ‘critical’ have you been to where no attempt was made to make the conference itself radical in terms of its design and structure? Well, we wanted to buck this depressing trend, and for the workshop, we scrapped the idea that any of us were experts, and designed the whole hour around a democratic process of knowledge production. But before we describe the ‘plan’ of this process and the results, we want to briefly outline some of the theories that this design was based on.

One major theoretical influence on the design of this workshop is the work of John Dewey. Dewey was a late 19th century and early 20th century philosopher who wrote extensively on the philosophy and politics of education. For Dewey, ‘democracy’ is a way of life, not just an abstract concept or a hollowed-out formal procedure of voting every 5 years – democracy is ‘primarily a form of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience’(1). What this means is that democracy is something we do when we communicate, socialise and most importantly, when we work out together what and how we want social life to be. Education, therefore, is something that teaches us how to be together democratically, how to speak and be with each other so that we can grow as individuals and as society as a whole.

From Dewey, the workshop took the important point that all people are capable of taking part in democratic social life, and that taking part in democratic social life allows us to express our innate capacity for social intelligence. A democratic model of knowledge production is one that creates the conditions for this social intelligence to be expressed, and makes full use of all the intelligence available. However, Dewey was a life-long critic of student-centred education, and in the context of an adult workshop, the role of the facilitator is still of paramount importance. For Dewey, as has already been mentioned, the facilitator must create the right environment for learning, which includes the materials, physical space and also emotional atmosphere of the learning environment.

Another important influence, who in some ways compliments Dewey but in other ways challenges his focus on the role of the facilitator, is Jacques Rancière, especially his major critical work The Ignorant Schoolmaster (2). In this book, Rancière describes the story of Joseph Jacotot, an early 19th century French teacher who accidentally stumbled across the realisation that one didn’t need knowledge to teach. Jacotot was asked to teach a group of Belgian students French, however they only spoke Flemish and he only spoke French – there was no language in common. By chance he had a bilingual edition of a French book recently published in Brussels, and he used this to teach this group. Unexpectedly, when he asked the students to write about the book in French, the result was as good as anything he had seen from students taught didactically from first principles. As we have said, this taught Jacotot, against traditional pedagogical wisdom, that you don’t need knowledge to teach.

The point for Rancière of resurrecting this eccentric story of a 19th century language teacher was to resurrect the principle and practice of radical equality. As Kirstin Ross neatly summarises in her introduction, ‘All people are equally intelligent. This is Jacotot’s startling (or naïve?) presupposition, his lesson in intellectual emancipation’ (3). Why do we need someone to explain to us the conditions of work in post-16 education when we all experience them on a day-to-day basis? And are we not all intelligent enough to work out what these mean and discuss them in a workshop? By assuming we must explain the conditions of work to people that work we are assuming that they lack the capacity to understand and explain to themselves and each other – we are reintroducing the kind of structural inequality that we are trying to move beyond in a conference on critical pedagogy.

In Deweyian spirit then, the ‘environment’ of the ‘Working in, against and beyond neoliberal education’ workshop was set-up as follows. The workshop was focussed entirely around discussion, with the pure minimum of input from us, the facilitators. It was therefore important to set up the room so that participants would naturally organise themselves into small groups by sitting at pre-prepared tables (5 in total). Before the workshop, discussion points were sourced democratically from participants via the event mailing list, and these were edited and consolidated into 6 main areas for discussion: Neoliberalism and Academic Labour; Time/Workloads; Managerialism; Precarity and Casualisation; Health and Prejudice; Pedagogy.

Here is an example of one of the discussion hand-outs:

Neoliberalism and ‘academic labour’

  • What is your understanding of neoliberalism?
  • How far do you think it is correct to refer to academics as ‘workers’?
  • How does academic labour differ from other forms of labour in further/higher education?
  • How far are academics ‘part of the problem’ of neoliberalism?
  • What forms of resistance and transformation are possible for academic workers?

In the interests of covering all the issues, one topic was given to each group with the understanding that a new topic could be selected when they had finished with the topic given. Furthermore, each group had to select one member to take notes and report back at the end of the discussion. At the end of the 20 minute discussion (with 5 mins at the beginning for introductions), one of the facilitators would make anonymised notes on Googledocs on the projected computer screen based on the results of discussion which would then form the basis of a plenary whole-workshop discussion for 10 mins at the end. These notes would then be edited and sent around the participants of the conference as a whole as a record of the discussion.

On the day the discussions went very well and produced some interesting and important results. Two major and recurring issues centred on the importance of linking academic labour with student activism and of the ‘double-edged sword’ of measurement and surveillance within the neoliberal university. Surveillance and measurement were seen as key problems within the New Managerialism of neoliberal higher education, and interestingly, this surveillance and measurement can be seen as both good and bad – bad because it comes with increasing pushes towards ‘efficiencies’, good because it makes visible some of the invisible problems concerning prejudice and inequality in the higher education workplace.

Another important issue that came up was health. We have probably all experiences unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety working in post-16 education, and some of us may have unfortunately also experienced bullying. The major problem with this issue is that it is dealt with on an individual level, in terms of coping, but also in the way that it is approached as a workplace issue. Individualising these issues, however, hides the systemic and structural causes of them. For example, much of the stress of working at university comes from unrealistic expectations on academic staff to manage huge teaching loads as well as engaging in ‘grant capture activities’ and research. For casualised staff, these stresses are intensified as they do not know if they will have any work from semester to semester.

Overall, we felt that giving participants space and time to engage with their own thoughts, ideas and opinions via dialogue with others was both useful and important. It is through dialogue within an open and safe environment that one’s thoughts and opinions become articulated. Very often it is through dialogue that one realises that actually initial thoughts that one held were faultily formed or conversely one develops and refines those views in the light of what other participants say. Furthermore, participating in small groups is usually easier and less threatening than doing so in front of a whole audience. It also gives everyone a chance to voice their views.

However, it goes without saying that discussing topics in small groups has its challenges too. In some cases, dominant speakers in the group prevented other less dominant participants from speaking up. Thus making sure that everyone in a group participates is crucial. Perhaps, even though it might sound prescriptive, in the future, we might like to consider asking participants to choose one person in the group whose job was to ensure that everyone in the group has a chance to speak. This might involve interrupting a group member who is exceeding their time; actively encouraging another member who has been quiet; or being proactive in asking questions if necessary.

Nevertheless, despite these challenges, the format presented in this article allowed for greater participation and is more in line with the principles of critical pedagogy and activism that informed this conference. It is hoped that by describing the methods and advantages of a radically democratic approach to organising a workshop, this approach can be successfully adapted by others wishing to do something similar in the future.

If anyone would like to discuss this approach or the article further, please don’t hesitate to contact either David Ridley (ab1955@coventry.ac.uk) or Ana Ines Salvi (ab0154@coventry.ac.uk)


  1. Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, p. 87

  2. Rancière, J. (1991). The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press

  3. Ibid. p. xix


‘The rising tide that lifts all boats’

Here is a re-recording I made of a recent talk given to MA at the University of Birmingham, commissioned by my supervisor Justin Cruickshank. The full title is ‘The rising tide that lifts all boats’ – the myth of the “invisible hand” and the fetish of competition in UK higher education reform. The ‘rising tide’ quote comes from a speech made by David Willetts in 2011, right at the beginning of the Coalition “gamble” to fulling marketise higher education in the UK. But in this talk I trace the reforms back to their origin in the Dearing report in 1997, and argue that even though the reforms have been shown in recent months to be a failure, there is a deeper belief in the “invisible hand” of the market that can be linked with what is popularly called “neoliberalism”, and even further back to Adam Smith and classical liberalism. However, through a close reading of Foucault’s 1979 Birth of Biopolitics lectures (see earlier post), the concept of neoliberalism is revisited to make it more effective critically, as arguably this concept has become more of a rhetorical device than anything.

Here is the Powerpoint to download: INVISIBLE HAND TALK

Zero-Hours and Fixed-Term Contracts in Higher Education


My UCU branch commissioned me to write an article on zero-hours contracts in higher education for the newsletter, it’s very much aimed at UCU members (and at getting more people unionised), but is still a useful summary and there isn’t a huge amount of information out there. Having said that, the UCU have published an amazing “survival guide” that I found half-way through writing this which is much better!


Zero-hours and fixed-term contracts at universities 

Zero-hours and fixed-term contracts have recently come into public focus in the news, government policy and in union action. Although they have been around for a while, and are not just used in universities, casual contracts can be very difficult to manage as an employee, leading to the feeling that the future is always uncertain. “Flexibility” is the main justification for the use of such contracts (on the part of employers), but perhaps a better word would be vulnerability.

This essay explains the differences in status and rights between zero-hours and fixed-term contracts, the extent of use of these contracts at universities and the looks critically justification of “flexibility”. Finally some of the excellent work UCU has been doing is described regarding the abolition of these contracts in order to give hope to those currently exploited by them


What are zero-hours and fixed-term contracts?

Although the term “zero-hours” is not defined in employment legislation, it refers to the kind of contract between employer and employee in which the employer is not obliged to provide a minimum number of hours, and the employees is conversely not obliged to accept any hours offered. The key idea behind “zero-hours” contracts is flexibility, for both employer and employee (on paper).

According to recent UCU research, over half the universities in the UK use zero-hours contracts and 61% of further education colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have teaching staff on zero-hour contracts. This is a shocking statistic considering that overall only 27% of all companies in the UK use these kinds of contract.

More specifically, UCU’s research has revealed that just under half (46%) of universities (that responded to the freedom of information requests) had more than 200 staff on zero-hour contracts, in the remaining 54% of institutions the number employed on zero-hour contracts ranged from one to 199, and five institutions had more than 1,000 people on zero-hour contracts.

Many academics, however, are also on fixed-term contracts: according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), two-thirds of part-time teaching-only contracts are fixed-term, while over two-thirds of research-only contracts are fixed term, irrespective of whether they are full or part-time. Fixed-term contracts are often for one or two academic years, but they can also be for summer or short-term jobs, for example teaching pre-sessional English to international students.

The immediate practical difference for employees on zero-hours and fixed-term contracts at universities is that the latter receive sick-pay. If someone on a zero-hours contract cannot make it to work on a particular day then their hours will be recalculated so that this time is removed from the pay at the end of the month. On a fixed-term contract you have the “luxury” of staying at home when you are ill (although realistically teaching staff on either contract will feel pressure to go to work despite being ill).


What does it feel like?

Employers will often tell you that many employees prefer to be on zero-hours (more so than fixed-term), as this gives them “flexibility” (the magic word!), for example if they have children, or more than one job, or are studying at the same time (whatever happened to job-related training?).

But this flexibility mostly benefits the employer, and what it really means to the employee is that they do not know whether they will have the same hours, the same modules, or even a job at all at the beginning of the next academic year. This greatly reduces the ability to plan ahead, to get a mortgage, go on holiday (‘I might need that money!’) or even just settle in the place you are working.

A recent Guardian article compiles accounts of what it is like to be employed on zero-hours contracts: one employee makes the important point that after the preparation, marking, office hours and meetings are taken into account, his wages barely exceed minimum wage (this is supposed to be a professional job); another describes how her employment future is dependent on her relationship with her course leader – ‘If the course leader changed, I could lose it all.’

A colleague of mine recently told me that she once waited until the first day of the new academic year to be offered any hours, and as one associate lecturer in fine art says in the article above, ‘it is this precariousness that is so exhausting’. Not only that, but it is also ‘the unfairness of working on these terms alongside academics on permanent contracts doing less teaching for far more money’ that is frustrating.

Another colleague has spent four years as an hourly-paid lecturer, and despite approaching the number of teaching hours expected from a full-time contract, she has still not managed to reach the £16,000 income-repayment threshold of her student-loans. At a starting salary of just under £30,000 a year, this means that the university saves £14,000 for every lecturer employed on an hourly-paid contract.


What are your rights?

According to ACAS, ‘zero hours workers have the same employment rights as regular workers, although they may have breaks in their contracts, which affect rights that accrue over time. Zero hours workers are entitled to annual leave, the National Minimum Wage and pay for work-related travel in the same way as regular workers.’

The crucial point here is whether or not there is a break in your contract between academic years (or particular provisions). If you have worked for your employer for one year if you started before 6 April 2012 or two years if you started on or after that date, then you are entitled to notice of dismissal, written reasons for dismissal and to claim compensation if unfairly dismissed.

Of course the issue will be whether or not receiving the same hours (or any hours) one academic year after having been a solid, continuous employee for two or more years could be called a “dismissal”, but in extreme cases there is definitely precedent in employment law that suggests there is a legal argument to be made.

Employers may argue that they ‘have no obligation to offer the employee any work’ because they are not an employee – this is a grey area when it comes to zero-hours contracts. It depends ostensibly on the “agreement” between you and your employer on what your employment status is (“worker” or “employee”), but there are clear indicators, such as having a written contract with an agreed number of hours per week as part of an established team. University lecturers are clearly employees though, even on an hourly-paid or zero-hours contract, and are therefore arguably entitled to some guarantee of future employment.

Fixed-term contracts offer one important benefit that zero-hours contracts don’t: sick pay. But otherwise, they leave employees in a similar position of insecurity. However, if you have been in service with a particular institution for two years or more, then not renewing a contract is considered a dismissal. Employees then have a right to a written statement of reasons – in 2008 UCU won a tribunal case (Ball vs Aberdeen University) on the grounds that fixed-term funding could not be used as a justification for fixed-term employment contracts.

For both zero-hours and fixed-term contracts there is also an important part of the 2002 Fixed-Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations that provide for employees to regard their position as permanent if they have been in continuous service for four years. Effectively, if you have had more than one fixed-term contract and continuous service for four years, your contract should automatically become permanent. However, for zero-hours contracts there seems to be a lack of clarity as to how many hours you might expect from a permanent contract.

It is important to contact your UCU branch before taking any action (or becoming a member of the UCU if you are not already one). The UCU has produced a survival guide for hourly-paid and fixed-term employees. It is important to know your rights but also to get support from your union.


Why do employers use zero-hours?

The main reason you will hear from employers for using zero-hours or fixed-term contracts is that they need a ‘flexible workforce’ in order to meet a ‘changeable or temporary need’ for staff. Advantages for employers include being able to have access to a pool of staff when demand arises, no ongoing requirement to provide guaranteed work, and most of all it is a cheaper option (not just to having permanent or full-time staff, but also as an alternative to agency fees).

Employers will also often justify use of zero-hours contracts on the basis that employees also want to be flexible with their work time – the flexibility works both ways, employees have no obligation to accept work and only the most exploitative employers have demanded that you only have one zero-hours job (this is now banned). It cannot be denied that in some cases zero-hours contracts allow people with other commitments, such as childcare or study, to work, and are also a way that the unemployed can get back into the job market.

As John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, has said: ‘Maintaining the UK’s flexible labour market is crucial to keeping unemployment down. Zero-hours contracts are vital for a successful jobs market, but they must be fair and work for all parties. (my emphasis)’ The last point is crucial, it is where zero-hours contracts are being used for no good reason that they are exploitative.

Robert Fildes at the Lancaster University Management School has forcefully argued that much demand is predictable sensible forecasting methods with measurable uncertainty. ‘Statistical baseline forecasts can capture any structure in the data, while expert judgemental adjustments can be used for extraordinary circumstances…There is no excuse for only offering such contracts other than managerial incompetence and a willingness to pass on risk to those least likely to be able to cope with it in the work force.’

The argument that flexibility is an inevitable part of modern life and therefore also a necessary part of modern employment must be looked at against the backdrop of growing vulnerability in the world. Joseph Stieglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, has repeatedly brough attention to the fact that the success of a nation’s economy cannot be measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product) alone. ‘Regardless of how fast GDP grows, an economic system that fails to deliver gains for most of its citizens, and in which a rising share of the population faces increasing insecurity, is, in a fundamental sense, a failed economic system.’


What are UCU doing about it?

The UCU have being doing some excellent work campaigning against the use of zero-hours and fixed-term contracts and have won some important battles. The statistics used above come from a series of Freedom of Information requests that the UCU sent to every UK higher education institution (145 responded), the findings of which are summarised in here. As a direct result of these requests, the University of Edinburgh vowed to abolish zero-hours contracts.

As part of the Stamp Out Casual Contracts campaign, the UCU next took on Gower College, the biggest user of zero-hours contracts in the Welsh FE sector, employing almost 80 staff on such contracts. Although not an ideal result, the college has agreed to employ all those staff with four years’ service at above 418 annual teaching hours (including remission) on a fractional post as a result.

Most recently, the UCU, in an unlikely and unintentional alliance with Ofsted, has shown that the quality of teaching at two South-West colleges, Bristol College and Wiltshire College, has suffered as a result of employing many staff on zero-hours and agency contracts. In the case of Bristol College, Ofsted has reported that the use of casual contracts ‘contributed to students’ below average achievement’. At Wiltshire College, Ofsted noted a ‘significant variation in the quality of teaching within and between faculties and subject areas’. Since these reports, the colleges have responded well to UCU calls to reduce casualisation and both colleges have put in place plans to change their employment practices.

In mainstream politics the UCU campaign (in conjunction with other union campaigns, TUC for example) is also starting to have an effect: Labour has now put zero-hours contracts firmly on their 2015 election agenda, although their promises are somewhat conservative, they do include the ‘right for employees who have consistently worked regular hours to receive a fixed-hours contract automatically’ (a slight but important modification to the existing right to a permanent contract after four years, introducing the idea that the hours themselves should be a part of that automatic transfer to permanence).


Anti-Casualisation Day of Action

The 5th November is the UCU Anti-casualisation Day of Action and events are happening at branches all over the country. UCU members have thought of all kinds of different ways to engage, recruit and help higher education staff on zero-hours and fixed-term contracts, such as drop-in clinics for people to seek help with workplace issues, further Freedom of Information requests regarding use of causal contracts, talks and tips on how to survive zero-hours contracts, and also induction events with stalls to increase awareness of causalisation.

At Coventry University we have helped to organise a Tea and Cake event for hourly-paid lecturers to encourage people in the same situation to meet up and have a chat, not necessarily in a political or unionised way, but in order to show that they are not as isolated as they perhaps think. The biggest challenge for changing the situation with casualised labour at universities is bringing those people together in the first place, as they are often only at work when they need to be and don’t get the chance to form the kind of solidarity needed for change, but perhaps more importantly, for general wellbeing.

Tuition Fees and Loans in 2015


The following article is the full version of something I recently published on the Campaign for the Public University website, which you can find here. It is basically a summary and critique of the market reforms to Higher Education, with reference to the main literature with a focus on political economy. 


‘Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels inevitability. Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Without persistent effort, time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social destruction. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.’ – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The situation looks bad in higher education today (if you are not a believer in neo-liberalism that is). This article does not wish to add to the depression that is leading to more and more apathy on the part of academics, higher education workers and students, reinforcing the common sense of the status quo that ‘there is no alternative’. I believe that the possibility of change and of a reinvigorated fight is on the horizon, specifically in the coming year building up to the 2015 elections. After three years of £9000 tuition fees and income-contingent loans, the evidence is now showing that the Coalition’s neo-liberal experiment has failed: the cuts and subsequent attempts to bring market efficiency into higher education in England will cost the government more than the system it sought to replace. On top of this, the evidence concerning for-profit providers in the US points to inefficiencies, declining quality and huge student drop-out rates. Furthermore, the ideology of “no alternatives” will not stand: in Germany strong student, union and political collaboration has overturned similar attempts to turn higher education into a market, and now all federal states have abolished tuition fees and re-established higher education as a public good, free for all (including international students).

There is much work to do, and first we must understand what has happened so we can understand what to do next, and be able to win important arguments. What follows is a summary of the situation concerning tuition fees and student loans, which relies heavily on some excellent work done by a handful of brave scholars. Hopefully I will have shown by the end that although the situation is complicated, it can be understood and a vantage point for action can be achieved. There reasons for hope, practical and immediate things to be done, and I outline these at the end.

Why tuition fees?

Tuition fees were first introduced by the Labour government in 1998, initially at £1000 a year, in response to recommendations made by the 1997 Dearing Report, which suggested that students should contribute to the costs of university education. In their second term in government, Labour increased tuition fees to £3000, inaugurating a tradition of back-tracking on election promises concerning tuition fees – Labour had stated in their 2001 General Election manifesto that ‘Labour will not introduce top-up fees and has legislated against them’.

Interestingly, the Conservatives were at that time completely opposed to tuition fees, with Iain Duncan Smith condemning them as a ‘tax on learning’. The Queen even stated in her 2003 speech that ‘up-front tuition fees would be abolished for all full-time students’. Despite all this opposition, the Labour government managed to pass the higher education bill with top-up fees on January 27 2004, with a majority of just five votes.

One of the concessions made to Tory backbench opposition to top-fees at the time was a full independent review on the higher education situation, undertaken by Lord Brown (then Chairman of British Petroleum). The Browne Review, published in 2010, recommended lifting the cap on tuition fees altogether, again caused great controversy in parliament, in the media and on the streets of Britain with mass protests from students and academics. Nevertheless, the Coalition (barely) won the vote in the House of Commons resulting in universities being able to charge up to £9000 a year in tuition fees, supported by access to inflation-linked and income contingent (ICR) student loans, underwritten by the government.

The larger economic background for the increase in tuition fees was as a measure to mitigate the damage caused by the financial crisis of 2007-8 (and alleged Labour government public spending) – the increase in tuition fees was matched with a cut to block grants issued to universities, the former meeting the loss of income caused by the latter. For the government, higher education funded by fees instead of grants meant that the economic burden of public spending could be displaced – the actual spending of grants was transformed into assets (the “deficit” is calculated by what the government owns, including what it is owed, i.e. assets, versus what it owes, the Public Sector Net Debt) which would be recouped in the future.

On top of this, to make the loans system attractive (and acceptable to the Liberal Democrats, who had promised no rise in tuition fees), the government set the repayment threshold at £21,000 (first repayments beginning in 2015), which would rise with inflation, and also to write off any debts that weren’t paid back after 30 years. This allowed the government to claim that the loans system was progressive.

The Great University Gamble

The issue of the cost of loans that will be written off is becoming central to the debates on the success or failure of the reforms to higher education – the “gamble” (as Andrew McGettigan calls it) of the reforms was that even after an estimated 30% of all loans are written off (after 30 years), the government would save £1billion for the reduction of the deficit. However, recent estimations, 3 years on, have revised this figure to 45%, ‘all but nullifying any savings to the public purse’.

London Economics have predicted that if the write-off exceeds 48.6% then the cost of the reforms will exceed the cost of the system it replaced. The major issue with the gamble that the Coalition are making with higher education is that the financial viability of the whole scheme rests on predictions on the future earnings of graduates and the growth and health of the British economy, neither of which are certain. A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, commissioned by Universities UK, admitted that ‘our earnings simulations are not predictions of the future; they are instead simulations based on a series of assumptions’.

As Andrew McGettigan predicted in 2013 in his indispensible book on the Coalition reforms to higher education, The Great University Gamble, ‘governments are not going to allow the build up of potential long run problems’. McGettigan predicted that the government would freeze the £21,000 repayment threshold, which they have now done, thus breaking the promise made to Coalition partners the Liberal Democrats that the threshold would rise with inflation.

McGettigan also predicted that the government would continue attempts to sell off the student loans book (that is the ownership and backing of the loans taken altogether, now and in the future) – the government has already successfully sold off the pre-1998 mortgage style loans, accepting a loss of £140 million overall through subsidies paid to third parties (subsidiaries and consortiums of Natwest, Nationwide Building Society and Deutsche Bank AG). These subsidiaries were necessary in order to make the loans attractive to private interests – the whole problem centres on the management of risk. The government are prepared to lose money in order to get rid of the risk posed by loans, and the risk of these loans must be made worthwhile to businesses such as banks and building societies (whose profits are generated by successful calculations of risk).

The government has so far failed to “sell” the risk of the post-1998 income contingent loans, despite many attempts to do so. According to McGettigan, there may be a fundamental flaw in the plans to sell off the ICR loans: a lack of history and datasets mean that investors are unable to price them with any confidence; any discount or subsidy to make the loan book attractive to investors would be so large (the loan book is growing by £10 billion a year) that it would no longer represent ‘value for money’ for the tax payer. Plus any attempt to sell the low-risk loans (doctors or Oxbridge graduates perhaps) would leave the government with the rump of non-repayment risk, thus defeating the object of the sale (McGettigan 2013: 183).

This is why the recent suggestion by David Willetts, now ex-Universities Minister, that universities should be able to underwrite, or effectively buy, their own students’ loans is not a serious solution to the growing problem of un-paid loans for the economy. It would only be the richest universities (Oxford and Cambridge, and perhaps some Russell Group) that could afford the risk, and this would still leave the risk generated by the majority of loans from students attending non-elite universities.

Furthermore, these non-elite (mostly post-1992) universities are already at risk of becoming unviable through the new reforms, and any gambles they make with their own income-vs-debts calculations could result in further sanctions from the government, who have stated in the White Paper of 2011, Students at the Heart of the System, that ‘it is not Government’s role to protect an unviable institution’. Future government plans include reforms to the laws on governance of universities, allowing fully-private institutions to enter the market, and even to buy out any universities that become unviable. These universities just can’t afford to take on any more financial risk.

Additionally, Labour’s proposal to cut the tuition fees to £6000 a year if they win the coming election is not only unrealistic, considering they don’t seem to have a plan as to where the money lost to universities (who now all charge the maximum) would come from, but also hides the fact that they were the ones who initiated this revolution in higher education funding. It was Labour who brought in the 2008 Sale of Student Loans legislation (which also allows the government to increase the interest rates of loans without consultation. And it was Labour who in late 2009 ‘decided to seek specialist financial advice about ‘alternative routes to market’ – resulting in a tender document published in April 2010 outlining ‘options for a potential sale of it existing £25 billion income-contingent student loan portfolio’ (McGettigan 2013: 181).

The Higher Education Bill 201-?

Well, it seems that in the long term the government might have no option but to try to convince us to get rid of the “progressive” policy to write off unpaid loans. Meanwhile, in the short term, they can change the terms and conditions of the loans, increasing the interest rates to “market rates”. They can do this because of a clause that appears in the Student Loans: A Guide to Terms and Conditions, which states that “you must agree to repay your loan in line with the regulations that apply at the time the repayments are due and as they are amended. The regulations may be replaced by later regulations.’ This clause was made possible thanks to the Education Act of 2011, which was supposed to be more concerned with Further Education, but which the government used to sneak in more ‘quick and dirty’ secondary legislation. It is extremely important that students know about this clause, and of the government’s plans to (unsuccessfully) sell off their loans. I think that even though students could be blamed for not ‘reading the small print’ and not following all policy decisions that relate to them with a keen interest, students would nevertheless, legitimately in my opinion, see these moves as a betrayal of trust. The government is supposed to be there to protect our social and personal interests, and I imagine that many students reluctantly sign the loan agreements because they are public loans, not loans owned by banks and building societies who regularly perform such financial ‘sleights of hand’ to gain a quick buck here and there.

It is our duty as academics and higher education workers to muck in with the students against the reforms and also to get stuck into the public sphere. We must firstly understand the economic and political policies that the government are trying their best to push in through the proverbial back door, and then to explain these policies to other academics, higher education workers and students as part of a general movement of protest and campaigning. If the government manage to scrap the unpaid loan write-offs it will be down to our own incompetence and inertia as much as the evil scheming of our neo-liberal ruling classes. As McGettigan warns, the Coalition’s real plan could be to ‘sell a generous loan scheme to the public, Coalition partners and Parliament, only to make it far less generous when its lack of viability becomes apparent. In this way a scheme that would not have got approval in one go is achieved in two bounds’ (McGettigan 2013: 173). This is correct – there is no way that the Coalition would have got a tuition fee system based on uncapped maximums and private loans, basically the US system, through parliament back in 2011.

The key problem that the Coalition, or subsequent government also trying to push market reforms to higher education through, is that at some point a major piece of primary legislation will need to be put together, in the form of a Higher Education Bill (which has been promised for some time but delayed until it looks likely the things that the Coalition want to put in there will get through parliament). In the White Paper of 2011, it is stated that primary legislation is needed to be able to open up degree awarding powers to private providers like Edexcel. This is a significant proposal that needs to be covered in more detail elsewhere, but is designed to allow teaching-only institutions to come into the higher education “market” with reduced costs and able to offer cheaper fees. Of course this can only result in redundancies (both of academic staff and whole degree courses) and increasing casualisation (i.e. more zero-hours contracts), not to mention the danger of sub-prime degrees (i.e. ‘cheap and cheerful’, but unregulated, degrees). Primary legislation takes a long time to go through parliament, which provides ample opportunity for mass protest and campaigning by informed academics, higher education staff and students – so it is an understanding of issues such as this, as well as problems with and alternatives to the tuition fee system, that could prove crucial in rejecting any ideological or frankly dangerous “clauses” in the inevitable Higher Education Bill.

The case against fees and loans

Whether the reforms are in fact a shamble or a shrewd manoeuvre to introduce a market into higher education is hard to say for sure (although a critical overview of the whole project would suggest the latter), but as mentioned before, the government might try to bulldoze UK higher education into accepting US style full privatisation as the only way to solve the looming “black hole” of tuition fee debt. This of course will take the form of familiar austerity ideology of necessary measures to save the economy, but there may be darker inflections to come as a result of this coming crisis stage of the reforms. One unexpected (or perhaps not so unexpected) bonus for the government of “financialising” undergraduate degrees, which is to say seeing them solely in terms of their economic value, is that the performance, or value, of individual institutions, even individual degree programmes, can be measured using data from students’ subsequent abilities to pay back particular loans. In effect, the government will be able to decide how much a university or subject contributes to the economy through graduates’ post-university careers. More than that, universities can then be punished for underperforming, with the probable result that economically inefficient subject will be culled (much like Philosophy was at London Metropolitan).

Even darker perhaps we might see the disciplinary Tory discourse of “scroungers” redirected at students who don’t manage to get higher paid jobs after graduating. Here we can see the ugly side of neoliberal ideology when it comes into contact with British conservativism – it is people’s own fault if they are poor. This can be then combined with the above disciplining of universities to stigmatise certain universities as underperforming due to lack of effort, or in management-business speak, inefficiencies (i.e. paying staff a decent wage). This is ideology because it hides the real reason why students can’t get a good job after graduating – because Margaret Thatcher (with variations on a theme after her) gambled on the UK’s emerging post-industrial economy, ‘in which money could be made without making anything else.’ Now graduates can look forward to either chasing money in financial jobs in London, or design new ways of making money for other people and selling people things they don’t really want in marketing jobs (unless they can afford to embark on an unpaid internship of course). If market reforms go ahead, the post-1992 universities will struggle to compete with the new private provisions who only need 1000 students to be called a university, and have no commitment to research (or employing expensive academics).

The future might look bleak, but only if we lie down and take it. We have damning data from the US, who have always had a tuition fee system with no caps and have a market system with both public and private (and a whole mixture in between) institutions in competition with each other. In 2012-13, the average cost of annual tuition in the United States ranged from $3,131 for public two-year institutions (community colleges) to $29,056 for private four-year institutions. In 2012 Senator Tom Harkin released a report on an in-depth two-year investigation into 30 for-profit US universities (institutions that have shareholders who are able to extract profits from the institution, as opposed to private charitable institutions that cannot distribute profits in this way), which found that large numbers of students fail to gain any credentials, there is a 64% average drop-out rate at such institutions and there is often a relatively little amount of money spent on instruction – 22.4% on marketing and advertising, 19.4% on profit distributions and only 17.7% on instruction. According to McGettigan (2013: 4), the evidence from the UK reforms already points to investment in non-teaching facilities that will attract students: marketing and recruitment, sports and leisure centres, social facilities and ‘landscaped campuses’. The things that will be termed “inefficiencies” will no doubt be teaching staff and permanent contracts.

Furthermore, in 2011 the US higher education system was worse value for money than the UK grant-funded system. According to Howard Hotson, the fact that the US regularly has more universities in the top world rankings is misleading – the US is much larger than the UK, and proportionally the UK universities in the top rankings are larger than their US counterparts. Basically, if we divide the number of top universities for each country by its population, the US drops to 14th place on the international league table of university systems. If we then divide the number of universities by each country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the US stays at 14th. Worse than that, if we divide the number of universities by total spending on higher education for each country, then the US drops to 16th out of 20 – the US spends more on higher education than any other country. Using the same calculations, UK higher education (remember we are talking about the pre-reform model, with public funding via grants) rises to 3rd place overall. Even better, when we look at the value for public spending, the UK offers 50% better value than its nearest competitor. On top of these statistics there have been a number of scandals in recent years, such as the Goldman Sachs “hypergrowth”-inducing takeover of the Education Management Corporation in which recruitment officers were ‘were encouraged to admit anyone with a pulse, including ‘applicants who are unable to write coherently, applicants who appear to be under the influence of drugs, and applicants for EDMC’s online program who do not own computers’.

But perhaps more importantly, we have a positive case study in which market reforms were overturned in Germany in the interest of returning higher education to a public good. In 2005, despite a federal law banning tuition fees, the Federal Court in Karlsruhe ruled that moderate fees complemented by affordable loans wouldn’t contradict these laws. Within two years many federal German states followed suit, worried that their institutions would suffer if they didn’t introduce the reforms. By 2007, seven out of 10 western states had introduced fees. But now, against all odds, the reforms have been completely overturned, with the last state Lower Saxony abolishing tuition fees this month (October 2014). How did this happen? Howard Hotson puts in down to democracy: ‘In Hesse, for instance, students protested en masse, a citizens’ initiative collected 70,000 signatures, and the ruling Christian Democratic Union party, fighting for re-election in 2008, reversed course in order to retain power’. Crucially for us, being at the beginning of such a long and hard fight, an Alliance Against Tuition Fees was formed from 200 organisations, including students’ unions, trade unions and political parties, who pushed for a referendum and got a petition signed by 1.35 million voters.

What is to be done?

The German case clearly suggests that we need to work towards a counter-hegemonic popular movement against the marketisation of higher education, focussed in the short term around tuition fees. The success of the German Free Education Movement is an important point of hope and a powerful ideological weapon against the nihilistic “no alternative” narrative of neoliberalism (endorsed by both the Coalition and Labour). Simplistically we have an example showing that public funding can work (adding Scandinavia as well), not only that but that marketisation can be undone if rejected early enough on – and in Britain that means before any primary legislation in the form of a Higher Education Act is passed through parliament. We also have a model of how a successful movement works: academics, higher education workers, unions and politicians working together. There is a march organised by the Student Assembly Against Austerity in London on the 19th November: we should support this and help the student movement grow again. We can specifically learn from the German success story that politicians do respond to public opinion when it becomes an ‘irresisyable force’. It seems to me that politically, the first job is to get rid of the Coalition, and then force Labour to put something far more radical on the table, and make it clear that if they go back on their promises, we’ll kick them out of parliament.

There is also have mounting evidence from the US that for-profit higher education is a bad idea: money being spent on anything but quality education, depressing fail rates and generally sub-prime provision. The campaign against tuition fees must be placed within a general and effective critique of the marketisation of higher education. Andrew McGettigan has undertaken the admirable and thankless task of interpreting and explaining the obscure and clandestine reforms of the Coalition through his self-styled Public Interest Higher Education Journalism (with a focus on finance) – when we win the war against marketisation in higher education then it will be largely thanks to him. We need more McGettigans but also more academics that are prepared to understand the reforms to be able to explain the dangers in an accessible and concrete way to students and colleagues (and anyone else who will listen), and to put the changes into a convincing bigger counter-narrative to neoliberalism. We need hope. Academics are good at criticising but not at putting forward concrete alternative or strategies for action. We need to immerse ourselves in the public sphere, writing for publications with a wider readership than our journals (for example on collaborative blogs, The Conversation, online newspapers), speaking on television and radio, speaking at open meetings, speaking at teach-ins and occupations (if we can get away with it). We need to put together a winning, convincing and economically viable argument for higher education as a public good.