Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

How Neoliberal Reforms Led to the Student Covid Crisis

By undermining the public funding base of our universities and turning students into consumers, successive governments lay the foundations for the Covid crisis – but it's young people who pay the costs.

Against the backdrop of austerity, universities have faced a daunting task to stay afloat for many years. But the current crisis has exposed a much deeper rot. The avoidable chaos that has unfolded on campuses cannot be separated from the fact that universities have become increasingly marketised; it is intimately bound up with failing neoliberal reforms and cuts to the higher education sector.

In 2010, English higher education underwent deep structural changes to how it was financed when the Tory-Lib Dem coalition unveiled an extensive package of ‘reform’ which allowed universities to increase tuition fees to £9,000 per year. The ‘invisible hand’ had triumphed, the role of the state within the higher education sector was diminished, and the balance was shifted from taxpayers to individual students.

While the episode might be remembered by many for the hapless Nick Clegg turning his back on his student voter base, this change made a major difference in how universities were funded. It accelerated the growth of marketisation and radically reshaped the students’ relationships to their universities, making it a consumer experience. Now universities in dire need of emergency funds to prop themselves up are treating these students like consumers, whose rental incomes matter more than education – and a government which wants universities to behave like for-profit businesses is allowing it to happen.

The government was warned about the scale of the crisis. For months, the Universities and College Union (UCU) had warned that universities were in a dire funding situation and would be forced into disastrous decisions. They called for a bailout, but it fell on deaf ears. In recent weeks, they said that higher education institutions were “weeks away” from “sleepwalking into a disaster” due to the imminent migration of students across the country.

They have been proven correct on all fronts: at the time of writing, 49 universities have announced coronavirus outbreaks, with the University of Glasgow being the worst affected, and the effective internment of students in campus accommodation has become a national scandal. As they struggle with the Covid crisis, universities have prioritised profits from student rents in order to prevent their own financial collapse. By doing so, they have endangered their students by forcing them to return to campus when most didn’t need to. The question is, how did our education system come to this?

But the depth of this crisis is so severe that it doesn’t end there. Staff, too, have seen their concerns cast aside. University managements have also shown absolute contempt towards their junior staff, many of whom are on casual contracts, by bullying them into face-to-face-teaching instead of the far safer option of going online. As students are treated as consumers in neoliberal higher education, the business people who run our universities were reluctant to abandon ‘the student experience’ for fear that the ‘product’ they provide would be diminished. With growing demands for refunds, universities remained determined to reopen their doors for the new academic year in a global pandemic by promising blended learning.

The pressures of the public health crisis are starting to intrude on this financial model. This week, the ever-hapless Gavin Williamson said that universities could finish face-to-face teaching later on this term, making the transition to being taught solely online in the short-term. Of course, this announcement was made after many students had already paid their first tuition instalments and rent payments to their accommodation providers. And after many were already trapped in their on-campus accommodation, denied even the right to return to their family homes.

Amidst the chaos, one thing is clear: in a system where higher education is commodified, universities have jeopardised their basic right of care over students. At a halls in Leeds, a fire exit was locked to quarantine students – before halls authorities somewhat dubiously distanced themselves from photographic evidence. Scores of security guards surround students in Manchester Metropolitan University halls, who have been quarantined – and told to take down posters critical of the government. A decade of privatisation and cuts has created a vicious internal logic for British universities, and we are seeing the result today.

It is long overdue that we radically restructure the ownership and role of property in our society. Up and down the country, many students have been trapped in stringent tenancy contracts and fallen victim to spiralling rent prices. The property wing of the neoliberal university has been exposed as a driving force in our education system – something which should never have been allowed to happen. Students have been misled that their universities were able to handle the crisis, and now they are being made to pay the costs with their health, their finances and their education.

To add insult to injury, Matt Hancock is refusing to rule out banning students from returning home at Christmas. Many are rightfully angry at their universities and landlords for prioritising profit over health. Now is the time for students to use their collective power: rent strikes would be a powerful way of organising this discontent and mobilising anger. Time has run out, and students are right to be tired of this exploitative arrangement. But they also have the ability to disrupt it and force change by withholding rent until demands are met.

A crisis in the marketisation of higher education is upon us. This farcical situation exemplifies the dire position that higher education is in. Students have been exploited for far too long; let’s make this a real breaking point, and remind those at the top who our education system is meant to serve.