By Lewis Martin
Last week, the news broke that three universities in the UK are facing bankruptcy if they don’t receive financial help from the government. One institution in the North West and two in the South of England, all unnamed, are having to survive on short term loans in order to function on a basic level. Most concerningly, one of them is already in talks with insolvency lawyers, suggesting that it could be filing for bankruptcy before the academic year is out.
But the most startling part of this story was yet to come. Just days after this news broke, the head of the Office for Students (OfS), Michael Barber, announced that failing universities would not receive a bailout from the government in order to stay afloat. Barber described the idea as ‘inconsistent with the principle of university autonomy and is not in students’ longer term interests’. This statement, given at the Wonkfest (an industry love-in run by former student union CEOs and NUS staff who lack any capacity for critical thought on the sector), demonstrated a damning, but not unsurprising, truth about the role of OfS and what the future really holds for Higher Education.
The banner claim from the OfS’ strategy is that it aims to ‘ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers’. It would be fair to assume that a statement such as this would mean that the OfS would have a strong interest in making sure that institutions that they attend are able to provide this ‘fulfilling experience’ without going bust. However, the statement made by Barber offers an insight into what the OfS really stands for. If it really cared about students, it wouldn’t be openly throwing institutions under the bus when they need financial help. Instead Barber and the rest of the OfS board should be looking to find ways to help these universities stay afloat, as well as honestly discussing why they and other institutions are struggling so much in the first place.
However, the honest truth is that the OfS isn’t interested in why universities are failing, in how to remedy that, or in ‘fulfilling students’ (whatever the fuck that means). OfS is only interested in providing palliative care to an education system dying of marketisation, in the hope that no-one will notice as it quietly passes away. Since 2010 universities have had funding stripped further and further back by the government and become more and more reliant on getting increasing numbers of students through the doors. As a result, universities are often reliant on getting a huge injection of cash every three months or so in order to stay afloat, and when they can’t find these elsewhere they’re turning to short term loans or, in extreme cases such as that of Manchester Met, closing entire campuses. These disastrous occurrences would shake any other regulator to its core and mandate action to save universities from their collapse, instead of simply letting them die on their feet. What we’re seeing from OfS is a body that has its head so firmly in the sand, that is so determined to deny that the ideology of marketisation it is subscribed to is pulling apart the sector, that its behaviour has become nothing short of farcical.
These universities are not the first casualties of the marketisation of education, and they certainly won’t be the last. As long as we have a regulator that refuses to level criticism at the current system we will continue to see institutions struggling, students having their degrees terminated early and academics and other staff losing their jobs. If we want to avoid the closure of universities we need to do more than just bail them out. We need a sector that isn’t forced to compete with itself through the continuous introduction of market forces, and we need a regulator that does more than simply pay lip service to the idea of reform and change. Until then, we should not expect the OfS to do anything more than shore up a failing system and undermine the opportunities for students to have a fulfilling experience in academia.
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