Our universities must be kept in public hands
In the UK, our world-class universities provide people from all kinds of backgrounds with qualifications that help them and our economy. Whether you went to university or not, publicly funded universities benefit you. From the new scientific research they provide, to the graduates they support to gain good jobs and pay more taxes, public universities help us all. But right now our public institutions are under attack from privatisation.
In 2012, the amount of public money received by private university providers trebled. The UK now has one of the world’s highest proportions of private funding in its university system. As private providers enter the market, both quality and equality of education are at risk. With the gap between rich and poor students being offered university places at a record high, we cannot afford to let privatisation increase inequality and reduce accountability in our higher education system.
Wtf is happening?
"Higher education has been privatised right under our noses. And no one is taking any notice." Roger Brown, former Vice Chancellor of Southampton Solent University
UK universities receive funding from a variety of sources, one of which is the government. Public universities accept funds from the government in return for complying with certain rules, like fee restrictions. This makes such universities more accountable and regulated than private universities.
Since the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, there have been massive changes for our publicly funded universities. The government has increasingly tried to turn our university sector into a market for higher education. With less government funding and more private providers entering the sector, public universities are being forced to find new ways to compete. This has meant higher fees and challenges to maintain our global reputation, leading some – like St Andrews – to consider privatisation.
Cuts mean privatisation
So how does all this work? Why has the private sector been sneaking into our university system? Well, it all starts with funding…
In 2012, the government cut the amount it gives to universities and decided instead to triple fees for students – shifting funding responsibilities away from public funds to private individuals. This was privatisation and had bad consequences for all of us, not just students.
This means universities now have to make up for the money they used to get from the government: this is where privatisation comes in. The government told universities they could make up for the money lost by charging students more. In theory only the best universities would charge students £9000, while less well-respected universities would charge lower fees. This creates a market for higher education. But universities do not want to be seen as lesser alternatives and many newer universities are more dependent on government funding to survive. So, the majority charge the maximum £9000. This shows that turning our higher education sector into a market hasn’t worked.
People over profits in higher education
Meanwhile, the government has been encouraging private providers to enter this new market for university education. With a £27 billion turnover in 2013, it is not surprising that private firms want to get involved in UK universities. Companies such as Facebook and Google may even be able to soon open their own universities here in the UK.
"It’s much more likely to mean we end up with the American-style catastrophe" Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at Kings College London
Private universities are expensive. The private Regent’s University London already charges its students £16,000 per year - something Oxford University is now considering. After its first year in business, the private New College of the Humanities was charging fees of £18,000 per year, with only around 20% of its students coming from state schools. Higher fees – at both private and public universities – create an incentive to accept more and more students. Andrew McGettigan, author of The Great University Gamble argues that focusing on simply getting more students can lead to a lack of focus on quality control.
Let’s not risk it
"My concern is that these institutions could be short lived and that students who have been promised the opportunity of getting a degree could end up in institutions that end up folding because they are a business enterprise – an experiment." Sorana Vieru, NUS vice president for higher education
The government plans to speed up the process that allows private providers to grant university qualifications, but this has caused concerns as private universities may not last long and could fail to provide students with meaningful qualifications. The National Audit Office has warned that the private sector is not being properly monitored, with many students benefiting from public subsidies despite dropping out of private universities. Taxpayer money is being wasted on poorly monitored private university providers.
In the UK, problems are already emerging. The private London School of Business and Finance failed to meet academic standards in 2015. The dangers of private universities can be seen more clearly in the USA. Former students sued Trump University, a for-profit private educator in real estate and business, after its misleading market practices and aggressive sales techniques. Donald Trump settled these law suits for a total of $25 million in 2016. This highlights a lack of accountability and fraudulent behaviour among private university providers.
Keep our universities public
Publicly funded universities are more equitable, accountable, and beneficial for the taxpayer than private models - this benefits all of us. University fees and teaching should be part of a regulated system; ensuring higher education remains based on the academic achievement not financial capability of students. We must keep our universities public and properly funded.
The campaign for the Public University argues that our universities are a public good and therefore they should remain in public hands.