Call for a Commons debate on the HE white paper

by Ruth

Warwick students are requesting all those interested in the future of higher education in England to sign a petition condemning the Government’s White Paper: “Putting Students at the Heart of the System” and instead urging the Government to implement the proposals of the Alternative White Paper, drawn up by academics last summer, entitled “In Defence of Public Education”.

The petition is here.

A Facebook event page can be found here.

With 100,000 signatures, this will force a debate in the Commons. But more important than that is the start of a larger campaign and series of actions highlighting what academics themselves have called “a reckless gamble, a dangerous experiment in university funding with no precedent in British experience” in relation to this White Paper. With your help, we can stop this Bill going through Parliament, and stop the marketisation of our higher education system.

The full text of the White Paper is here.

“Putting Students at the Heart of the System” does the following things:

  • Ignoring any social and public benefit to university education, the White Paper attempts to introduce a market system into higher education, representing the student as a consumer of higher education, with loans functioning as a voucher to present at a university of choice.
  • In this way, the government is putting its faith in the idea of market competition to improve a system that is already effective, without any statement of how that improvement might be brought about by the measures being introduced, and without any attempt to ‘trial’ the measures by trying them out on a restricted scale.
  • At the very heart of a university is the integration of research, scholarship and teaching, yet nowhere does the government acknowledge that these activities are mutually sustaining.
  • The White Paper is sanguine about public universities going bust. The UCU estimates that up to a third of universities and colleges could be forced to close, and what will happen after this is that private providers will be waiting in the wings, seeking access to cheap ‘infrastructure’ and able to take over ‘ailing’ public institutions in new ‘private-public’ partnerships. A private, for-profit university would have no interest in meeting the broader public remit nor the interests of the local economy in which it is located.
  • The proposals will harm social mobility, as it is not the high-performing institutions that have done most to widen participation, but those that will be at risk of closure due to the Government’s proposals.
  • The White Paper completely divorces the concepts of university teaching and research, ignoring that critical knowledge serves a public good that is guaranteed by the character of the university as an institution.
  • Following the lead of the Browne Review, the government now affirms education only in its contribution to the economy and as a private investment in human capital, ignoring that critical knowledge serves a public good that is guaranteed by the character of the university as an institution.

The Alternative White Paper recognizes the value of universities as both providing individual benefit, as well as serving the public good. Its nine propositions, outlined in detail in the paper, are as follows:

  • Higher education serves public benefits as well as private ones. These require financial support if these benefits are to continue to be provided.
  • Public universities are necessary to build and maintain confidence in public debate.
  • Public universities have a social mission, contributing to the amelioration of social inequality, which is the corollary of the promotion of social mobility.
  • Public higher education is part of a generational contract in which an older generation invests in the wellbeing of future generations that will support them in turn.
  • Public institutions providing similar programmes of study should be funded at a similar level.
  • Education cannot be treated as a simple consumer good; consumer sovereignty is an inappropriate means of placing students at the heart of the system.
  • Training in skills is not the same as a university education. While the first is valuable in its own terms, a university education provides more than technicaltraining. This should be clearly recognised in the title of a university.
  • The university is a community made up of diverse disciplines as well as different activities of teaching, research and external collaboration. These activities are maintained by academics, managers, administrators and a range of support staff, all of whom contribute to what is distinctive about the university as a community.
  • Universities are not only global institutions. They also serve their local and regional communities and their different traditions and contexts are important.

The full text of the Alternative White Paper: In Defence of Public Higher Education can be found here.

As the Alternative White Paper concludes,

“The commodification of higher education is the secret heart of the White Paper, which the government does not wish to debate openly. The government seeks a differently funded sector, one which can provide new outlets for capital that struggles to find suitable opportunities for investment elsewhere. Against the backdrop of collapsed productivity in traditional sectors, we are in a new phase of private sector stimulus at the expense of public provision. The role of government will act as a broker for private investment in services and it will be achieved on higher levels of individual indebtedness and higher leveraging at institutions. These are the very conditions which have given rise to the current financial crisis”.

We can force this debate to happen in the open and get our case back on the agenda.

We can stop our young peoples’ futures being treated as the next frontier for private investment.