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The need for campaigning: Students’ Unions.

SU President-elect Dan Cooper discusses the need to resist the reshaping of our
universities.

Across the UK, universities are making redundancies, cutting courses and restructuring
departments. The recent actions at London Metropolitan University demonstrate a growing
reality at many other institutions. There is an exhaustive list of over 400 courses being
axed, chiefly in the humanities and arts. The only degree in Caribbean Studies in the UK is
being terminated. Across the university, essential cleaners and academics are being made
redundant, with no discussion or consultation on such decisions. Devastating cuts are taking
place across our universities but particularly hitting campuses that house those that would
traditionally not go to university – working class and mature students, such as at London
Met. This underlines a crucial point. The changes taking place in higher education and across
public services hold a specific class character – the most vulnerable in our society are being
predominately affected.

The government is in a mess over what to do with British universities. There has been a long
delay in the much awaited White Paper which was supposed to set out the government’s
vision on higher education. This postponement of the paper is due to the malaise about fixing
the hole in the proposals for financing our student loans but also the continuing student
rebellion against fees and cuts. Most seem unaware that much of the detail on funding
universities has yet to be decided. The coalition government’s initial proposition suggested
that universities charging £9,000 would only be in ‘exceptional’ circumstances. This has
been proven wrong; of those 95 universities and university colleges which have announced
their fees for the academic year 2012/13, 20 institutions will charge over £8000 a year, and
67 institutions will charge the full £9000 a year, including here at Royal Holloway. The
Office for Fair Access (the body that was supposed to hold the necessary legal powers to
negotiate down the fee levels proposed by individual universities, thus maintaining some
direct financial control) has not renegotiated a single proposal, and so has become devoid of
any real function. As universities charge significantly higher tuition fees than anticipated, not
only are many students excluded from participating in higher education, but the government
still has to find an additional £450 million a year to fund tuition fee loans, negating the
original purpose of saving the government money.

The rates of interest and repayment terms are still provisional and we do not know how
many students will have access to the scheme. This was seen last week when David Willets,
Minister for Universities and Sciences, disgracefully suggested that teenagers from the
wealthiest families would be able to pay for extra places at the most competitive universities
under government proposals that could allow institutions to charge some British students the
same high fees as overseas undergraduates. In the longer term, the government is preparing
the ground to further ‘marketise’ our universities. Willets is removing the legislative
restrictions that prevent new, private and cheaper operators from entering higher education.
The new chairman of the Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, explicitly stated that
he wants higher education “to move closer to the values and practices of the private sector”.

These factors go on top of the spending cuts; preliminary predictions suggesting between 15
and 30 universities could go bankrupt and fail.

The spending cuts are only beginning to be passed on at a local level. At RHUL, very little
has been released by university management about the future; however the signs so far are
worrying. The recently released ‘Principal’s Manifesto’ explicitly states restructuring will
result in changes to the structure of the academic year, the length of the teaching day, patterns
and modes of teaching, faculties being re-organised, reviews of job pay and role of many
staff, increased e-learning and flexible delivery with an increase in part time students. The
decision to increase tuition fees to £9,000 was taken with minimal discussion in the company
of students, staff, lecturers and heads of departments and faculties alike – why did we receive
such little involvement in such an important decision?

Vital decisions about the future of people’s livelihoods and academic space must be shared
by all concerned. Furthermore, every subject will now be obliged to have a minimum size
requirement in order to survive, with cross subsidy (e.g. Economics supporting Arts subjects
financially), a long established practice at British universities, being limited. This puts many
subjects into a precarious position. At a recent meeting, our Principal, Paul Layzell (who
has much familiarity with the market model of the university, having at Sussex implemented
harsh cuts, sacked over 100 staff members without consultation, and is used to earning
colossal amounts – over £200,000 a year at Holloway) proudly suggested that the university
was following a “gym-membership-model”. These changes, at the moment, may seem like
nothing. But let us be sure that they will result in the erosion in the quality of education, jobs
being lost and subjects being closed. We deserve to be treated as active participants in the
makeup of our university, not passive observers who settle for what we’ve got.

There has been a magnificent rise in student activism this year which has shaken the
government, many becoming involved in campaigns to protect their courses and save their
lecturers’ jobs. This must continue! As President of the Students’ Union next year, the
priority must be defending education locally as well as nationally. We must ensure we don’t
follow the lazy mantra of ‘let’s minimise the damage’ but fight every single redundancy,
every cut contact hour, every book removed, and every lecture cancelled. This is why I am
imploring you to join the Students’ Union in standing up for our degrees.

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