by Liam McCafferty
Over the last five years, students have felt the impact of austerity. With the recent election shock of a Conservative majority, we can expect further hardship: more cuts, more pain. But how exactly have students been affected by austerity, and why should we care?
Funding for institutions in Higher Education has been reduced by 35% over the last 5 years. This has been largely offset by the increase in tuition fees to £9000, however the shift of financial responsibility from the state to the individual has radically changed the HE funding landscape. A consumer culture has emerged, whereby institutions are forced to compete for a limited number of students. ‘Value for Money’ has become the key quantifier, and the centrality of the National Student Survey further embeds the role of the student as ‘customer’ in a fluid and ever-changing higher education marketplace.
‘the centrality of the National Student Survey
further embeds the role of the student as ‘customer’’
The Conservatives recently refused to rule out a rise in tuition fees, and with Vice-Chancellors from the elite Russell Group lobbying for higher fees, we can expect an increase to be proposed. Fees were raised to £9,000 in 2010, and since then applications for English-domiciled students have dropped between 18 per cent and 22 per cent, with students from working-class backgrounds being hit the hardest.
In Further Education the situation is even worse.
Prospective students faced within a mountain of debt, particularly those from a working class background, are increasingly inclined to choose courses based less on their interests, and more on what is ‘employable’ — which in plain speak means those proscribed by business. The consequence of this has seen a growth in STEM and business-based subjects, and a gradual decline in applications for subjects in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.
‘the Conservatives plan to make extra budget cuts of £12billion.’
There has been continual decline in courses from those subjects in many institutions across the UK, with the ‘squeezed middle’ of former 1994 group hit the hardest. The potential outcome is one where only the elite institutions of the Russell Group can afford to read Kafka or look at Picasso, whilst the rest of us study business degrees hoping to put us ahead in our desperate hunt for an unpaid internship.
Support for students is also being cut. The government has already tried to slash the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). This was a scheme created to provide crucial support for disabled students that impact on their ability to study. Overall, the Conservatives plan to make extra budget cuts of £12billion. The Department for Work and Pensions has already announced it is looking at cuts to the Access to Work fund for disabled people, and we can expect cuts to DSA to be part of that 12bn.
Welfare services on campuses are also under strain, and are often seen by Vice-Chancellors as the ‘soft underbelly’ as they look to offset declining student numbers and sate their league table addiction with cheap gimmicks and dirty hits.
Living costs are rising, and students are poorer than ever. Figures from the NUS suggest that the average cost of student accommodation is £5244 a year, which would take up around 95 per cent of a top band maintenance loan. This ﬁgure shows no sign of slowing down either; in the last five years the cost of rent for students has been rising faster than inﬂation. Research by the Resolution Foundation has found that almost 4m people are spending more than 33% of their wages on rent; most tenants in the private sector are young, and large proportion are students. Unlike other low-income renters, students are not eligible for housing benefits — which are due to be scrapped for under-25s as part of the 12bn cuts package.
‘Last year the NUS warned that rising living costs
meant that students were increasingly turning to food banks’
Food bank usage has increased 19% year-on-year over the last 5 years, with over a million people now estimated to be dependent on them. Last year the NUS warned that rising living costs meant that students were increasingly turning to food banks. Students more than ever are forced to take low-paid work, often on exploitative zero-hour contract. A recent study by Swansea University found that desperate students are increasingly turning to sex work to make ends meet. Living grants are currently means-tested and barely sufficient, and under another 5 years of austerity we can only expect this to get worse.
Zero-hour contracts have proliferated over the last-five years. Workers on zero-hour contracts are most likely to be under 30, and 21 per cent of those on a zero hour contract have a degree or equivalent qualification. It doesn’t get much better when you graduate. Although the government has claimed that graduate employment is at an all-time high, much of this growth comes in unpaid internships or other forms of precarious or unpaid employment.
International students have been particularly under fire. The post-study work visa was already scrapped in 2012, which had previously allowed international students two years to find work. Earlier this year Theresa May proposed that international students are expelled immediately after graduation, and with overall net migration targets to be taken ‘from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands’, we can expect further restrictions on the recruitment of international students by institutions. The Conservative manifesto recently pledged to ‘reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse’, as well as pledging to reduce the number who stay on after graduation. That means more restrictions, evictions and deportations.
‘Earlier this year Theresa May proposed that international
students are expelled immediately after graduation’
For Black students from the UK, the attainment gap is alive and well. A recent report by academics at University of Manchester and Leeds Beckett found that racial inequality remains prevalent throughout all areas of British higher education, including admissions, staffing and employment. Students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds who are disproportionately Black students, and the scrapping of Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), by the previous conservative-led government has only making it more difficult for those students to access education.
Finally, the scientific consensus is conclusive — climate change is caused by human activity. Our universities have not only failed to challenge inaction, but are complicit in climate catastrophe, with the vast majority maintaining investments in the fossil fuel industry — the very industry most responsible for aggravating climate change — in spite of mass and repeated staff and student campaigning.
‘Failure to take the environmental crisis seriously is a
crime of government which we will all become the victim of.’
Under the last five years of austerity measures, there has been a chronic under investment in renewable technology and a sustainable economy which is vital to safeguard our future. Failure to take the environmental crisis seriously is a crime of government which we will all become the victim of. In demanding an end to austerity, we must demand a shift in our society and economy that promotes sustainable development and employment that concurrently deals with both the rising cost of living, unceasing unemployment and the climate crisis.
A wave of anger has erupted since the election, with huge meetings and protests happening across the UK. The People’s Assembly against Austerity has called a huge demonstration on the 20th June. J20 has the potential to be a real turning point for those who opposite austerity, and it is crucial that a resurgent student movement is at the heart of it.
Free coaches will be heading to London from Norwich on June sponsored by the Norfolk People’s Assembly and the Union of UEA Students. You can book your place online.