How The Campus Became a Battleground

Years of marketisation reforms have transformed universities from places of knowledge to places of profit – and now the government is going for ideological control, too.

Students march during a demonstration against education cuts on 4 November 2015 in London, England. Credit: Chris Ratcliffe / Getty Images

‘You need to be careful. I should have been more careful perhaps in signing that pledge at the time. At the time I thought we could do it.’ – Nick Clegg

Back in 2010, British political discourse was alight with fury. The Liberal Democrats, propelled into government off the back of a shock general election result, announced they were abandoning their key election pledge: opposing any rise in university tuition fees.

The Browne Review on university reform—published in 2010—recommended the cap on student fees be lifted. The Review also recommended the threshold for loan repayments be increased from £15,000 per year. The Liberal Democrats agreed.

The Review’s six principles were proudly laid out at the start of the paper. They pointed to a revived aspirational vision for UK higher education acknowledging Britain’s diverse student body, but also its unmet needs and unfulfilled potential as a result of underfunding and lack of choice.

The Browne review was a major intervention in education policy circles. It was successful in some respects: the reforms advocated for in the paper were adopted by government. Its vision was sold. Its impact is still felt today.

But for many of the first waves of students to pass through the redesigned higher education fee system since, that impact is one of a financial burden that won’t go away, and of job prospects that have failed to match up to the promised vision of security and fulfilment.

Many of the graduates to feel the impact of that financial weight and job insecurity were also the first in their families to go to university. They came from communities in which higher education participation was low; in which getting a degree was seen as something the middle-class families living a few streets away in the more affluent part of town did.

Since the fee system changes came in in 2012, the universities themselves have also come under huge strain. Students are no longer seen as potential vessels of intellectualism; instead, they are numbers on well-designed prospectuses representing polished university marketing strategies.

Universities, instead of being considered vanguards of public knowledge and the sites through which the next generation of thinkers, researchers, and innovators are shaped, have been hollowed out in favour of a PR- and media-driven institutional culture. This culture is one in which a researcher’s career success is influenced by how well they can deliver a media soundbite, reducing their meticulously researched publication’s findings to a 45-second clip that might be used by a talk show host on the BBC or Sky News.

The mass rollout of metric-driven research funding has only added to this: performance indicators such as the REF and TEF and codes like the UK Quality Code for Higher Education force universities to prove they are performing to set standards in order to obtain funding. The cumulative effect has been the erosion of Britain’s intellectual life.

At the same time, the impact of the Browne reforms on the internal workings of universities have added to Britain’s labour market problems, exacerbated by global economic shocks like the 2008 financial crisis, austerity, and Covid-19. A climate of funding insecurity and the influence of free-market inspired principles laid the foundations for a boom in fixed-term, casual research contracts.

Across the country, from Russell Group universities in Liverpool and Oxford to former polytechnics like Westminster, casualised labour is now a rite of passage. Early career researchers are disproportionately impacted by short-term, hourly waged contracts which typically only pay for work done in the classroom, failing to take into consideration the time the same researchers spend on preparation for lectures, grading assignments, and completing paperwork. The Fractionals for Fair Play campaign at SOAS found that on average fractional staff were paid for only fifty percent of the work they perform.

It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that along with such extreme precarity, the mental health epidemic on university campuses has reached such heights. A 2020 report published by Randstad found almost forty percent of students have seen their state of mental wellbeing change for the worse since starting higher education, and this crisis is mirrored by another among staff.

The ongoing battle over funding and fees indicates that in many ways, universities are this country’s most turbulent public policy battlegrounds. A decade of harsh austerity, the acceleration of neoliberalism, and an increasingly authoritarian political climate have pushed Britain’s wider societal tensions onto their campuses. As political rights and freedoms are eroded on the street, debates on how to resist have raged inside university lecture halls and at student societies.

We can see this happening on a wide range of issues, from Rhodes Must Fall and Britain’s continuing self-denial over the true legacy of its imperial past to the securitisation of British Muslims; from austerity and student occupations against tuition fee increases to campaigns against attacks on university workers’ pensions and pay. The latest manifestation of these tensions is the government’s Higher Education Bill.

Cited as a necessary measure to protect against the rise of intolerance on university campuses, the Higher Education Bill sets out a range of policies which the Conservative Party claim will protect freedom of speech. The reality is that the bill will do the opposite.

The bill, currently making its way through Parliament, will give the Office for Students (OfS) the power to monitor and enforce freedom of speech measures at higher education institutions, and introduce a complaints system and redress for breaches of free speech duties through a statutory tort. It will also extend duties on free speech to students’ unions and create a role of Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the OfS.

As the Tories’ culture war rages on, the significance of this bill—proposed in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests, in parallel with the oppressive Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and as the economic fallout of Covid-19 raises the prospect of more austerity—shouldn’t be underestimated.

Wave after wave of university reforms, despite claims by supporters, have ended up intensifying government regulation of, and interference in, our universities. What little remains of freedom of speech and intellectual expression stands to be further eroded by this bill, and for Britain’s universities to thrive once again, it should be resisted.

Any political party wanting to reform the sector for the better would do well to acknowledge the issues as academics, students, university workers and their trade unions experience them. This is the latest battle universities are facing, but it will not be the last.