by Robyn Banks

Last month, Freddie DeBoer wrote about the failure of the university system in the United States to equally fund different institutions across the country. Looking specifically at Connecticut, DeBoer shows how Yale, one of the prestigious Ivy League universities, fuels social inequality by receiving public funds as well as other sources for revenue whilst other, more accessible community colleges are “cut to the bone”.

In implementing severe austerity cuts, the federal government is making the decision to take money from the smaller community colleges run by the Connecticut University System (CUS), who aren’t as well recognised or supported, and to pump it into the more elite university that carries worldwide name recognition, in the hope of bigger returns on their investment. This elitism is destroying the opportunities that would previously have been open to those in the CUS who are not lucky enough to attend Yale. What’s happening in the UK makes for a very similar story.

Since 2010 the Tories have successfully advanced their dual project of raising fees for students and cutting universities’ state funding, all in the name of ‘balancing the budget’. In the aftermath, the elite universities in the prestigious Russell Group, receive 69% of the total available funding from the UK funding councils and 77% from the UK research councils (all non-departmental government bodies), as well as 81% of available research funding from charities (figures from June 2016).

As the majority of the funding is directed into the hands of just 15% of universities, the rest are primarily reliant on tuition fees and struggle to keep themselves afloat. This fight for survival has led to some extremely dubious and misguided decisions by institutions over the past 7 years – with detrimental effects on the students who study within them.

At UEA, the cuts to education have led to a stronger push for further marketisation, harsh cuts to whole courses or their parts, and the continued underfunding of its student support services, particularly mental health services. Whilst the funding deficit it is facing is not and never will be an excuse for the way that the university has behaved, it does explain the challenges that it, as well as other universities up and down the country, face.

Institutions are having to make decisions whether to continue to support what were once seen as staple subjects of the university experience. The arts and humanities are no longer seen as central to academia and public life as they once were, with the STEM bloc of subjects not only receiving the most focus in university promotion but also the most funding and practical support. This has created a two-tier system of teaching within universities, where those who choose to study the arts and humanities are often seen as a second class of student who aren’t worth as much as STEM students. And that’s not to mention those ‘niche’ modules or courses that are accused of being undersubscribed, in an absurd category error that assumes a correlation between popularity and value. Modules are becoming more and more streamlined towards how they can directly apply to a job sector instead of expanding the minds and challenging the beliefs of students.

Rewarding the senior figures within our institutions should never come at the cost of our courses and services

These decisions, made by both the government and universities constitute a consistent, focused attempt to make higher education exclusive to the elite once again. Whilst this isn’t something that can cured quickly, universities can take steps in order balance the books and end the underfunding of courses and services. UEA has over £250,000 invested in fossil fuels. Whilst this won’t help to fund all the subjects or services on campus, this money could easily be put towards helping to cushion the blow of the cuts it’s being forced to make. It could also look to reinvest all the money it makes from the annual price hikes on campus accommodation into areas where it will benefit students, instead of pocketing it as profit. Finally, those in charge have to look at what they’re personally earning and accept that in this current climate that they must take a wage cut. Vice Chancellor (i.e. head honcho) David Richardson earned £271,000 last year, with 15 other senior staff members earning more than £100,000. Rewarding the senior figures within our institutions should never come at the cost of our courses and services.

At the end of the day, austerity is having a crippling effect upon wider society as well as on universities on both sides of the pond, and will continue to do so all the time it is government policy (although given today’s result that may not be for long). We should not, however, ever let universities use it as an excuse for the continued cuts and further marketisation and elitism that is being spread throughout the system. University management up and down the country are fully aware that they can cover the costs via divestment, reinvesting the profits they make off of students into the university, and taking a much needed pay cut. We need to keep the pressure on until they act on that guilty knowledge.

Featured image via tpsdave/Pixabay

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