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The Conservatives are pushing a Higher Education Bill, that would increase fees for students, and give degree-awarding powers to private powers.
The HE Bill has received opposition from the Labour Party, the NUS and lecturers’ union UCU: who have jointly organised a demonstration on November 19th.
The Bill will bring about the linking of Tuition Fees to Teaching Excellence Framework scores: meaning Universities that have higher TEF scores will be able to charge more. It will allow a new “Office for Students” to give degree-awarding powers to for-profit organisations. The Office for Students will also have the power to take away degree-awarding powers.
The “Office for Students” might not have any students inside, as no plans have been made for a student representative.
Cat Smith, Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, has expressed her opposition to parts of the Bill. Agreeing that the Bill represents the privatisation of education, Smith told SCAN for-profit providers are “a threat to Higher Education.”
“Bringing in for-profit providers risks damaging the reputation of the entire sector” she explained.
The Bill, she said, was even more damaging post-Brexit: “The HE Model only works because we have more international students because they pay much higher fees and subsidise British students- it threatens the entire economic model of higher education.”
Would she go as far as to call it the “privatisation of education”? – “Yes, I would go that far” she told SCAN.
A University statement has given no clear stance on the Bill: “Lancaster University submitted evidence to the Commons Public Bill Committee indicating there should be adequate protections concerning the Royal Charter Status of universities, the powers of the Office for Students (OFS), the ring fencing of quality-related research funding (QR funding) and ensuring appropriate interaction between OFS and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).”
When pushed for a University stance towards the Bill, a University spokesperson told SCAN: “At the end of the day universities have to work in the regulatory environment set by the elected government.”
“Government policy is clear that there is a commitment to measuring teaching excellence, such that the TEF is going to happen and that they want to drive this through more private providers which will be allowed to enter the market place.”
“We are directing our energies to working out how we will prosper in this new environment.” The spokesperson explained, “The early signs are that Lancaster will do very well indeed.”
The University also noted that they support the changes to the Bill being suggested by Universities UK (UUK) who represent Universities across the country. In their advice to Parliament, UUK said they they welcome “the government’s intention to allow new providers into the system to secure greater choice for students and to ensure appropriate competition in the higher education sector” – however they suggested that providers should have a “track record” in order to be given degree-awarding powers.
LUSU will not be all-out opposing the Bill at this stage, according to Rachel Hughes, VP Campaigns and Communications, and instead informing students to the pros and cons.
She said: “At this stage we’re having as many conversations with students as possible to find out from them what message they want us to send to Westminster.”
“The union has produced information on the key points of the bill to give our members chance to understand more about the issues and help us reach a conclusion on what the union’s stance on this should be.”
“This is complex legislation and there are many pros and cons to the changes that the government is proposing.”
“Rather than trying to reduce this to a simple for or against argument, we’d rather give meaningful feedback to the government in order to ensure that the student voice at Lancaster is truly reflected.”
“We’re inviting students to send their feedback by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org”
Numerous groups are openly campaigning against the HE Bill. On Wednesday, Week 2, Dr. Jacob Phelps was stationed in Alex Square with a megaphone – informing students of the dangers of the HE Bill. Explaining that the UK is world-renowned for the quality of its Universities, he explained that: “the HE Sector is becoming a market machine, and it is ruining the reputation of HE in the UK.”
“Since I started working here my salary has dropped by 20% because of the decreasing value of the pound, we’ve had Brexit, increases in fees, and now the HE Bill.”
Dr. Phelps went on to say: “I used to be a public sector employee, I’m not one any more. Students pay my salary, and a huge proportion of the LEC budget comes from tuition fees.”
“And the bill creates private degree-granting institutions who will obviously pick the most profitable degrees. It’s the marketisation of the sector.”
Cat Smith explained that “the Bill is being very tightly whipped in Commons”, and consequently it has been hard for the Unions or the Labour Party to achieve any successes in stopping it. But, she explains: “students can help the campaign by contacting members of the House of Lords who have connections with your hometown or Lancaster – maybe some of the readers of SCAN know someone in the House of Lords – contact them and ask them to support amendments which can soften the harshest edges of this.”
“I’d encourage people to go on that demonstration, and make it clear that this is not what students are asking for, it’s not what the academics I’ve been speaking to have been asking for,” she concluded.
The “United for Education” demonstration, on November 19, has been organised by UCU and the NUS. Controversial NUS President, Malia Bouattia, backs the demonstration, saying: “The government’s Higher Education and Research Bill proposes opening up higher education to for-profit institutions, much like Trump University, and opens the door for universities to raise their fees ever higher.”
Dr. Phelps called the demonstration: “a broad response to efforts to privatise Higher Education, and it’s reflective of a concern about radical changes that are happening in a very short time.”
“UCU and students are united, not just for the sake of a louder voice, but because we share the same interests. Just because tuition fees are up, it doesn’t mean I get paid more.”