Higher Education, Laid Low

By: St Andrews Students in Solidarity with Strikers

We Concerned Students,

Have been, are, and will be taking action to defend our teachers, our university, and higher education more broadly. In so doing, we acknowledge that no individual is ever clearly decisive, and no moment ever unambiguously the turning point of a transformation, but firmly believe that this standoff constitutes the symbol of a wider trend pervasive in education. As a result of our firm commitment, we believe we have the obligation to explain ourselves and our actions, and to appeal to our fellow students to support us in our actions in defense of our educators.

Here we stand, as many through the history of St Andrews have before us: we can do no other.

Our immediate aim is to defend our teachers’ pensions. The hard-line agenda advanced by the UUK, and the interim agreement floated between the UUK and the UCU, have each been wholly rejected by the teachers who are the ultimate arbiters of the health of higher education. If the former agreement had been accepted, teachers could have expected to lose up to 40% of their retirement, and younger teachers would have lost over half. The latter proposal, wholly outside the acceptable range of discourse for employers little more than a month ago, would still have cut pensions over 25% for young teachers. Today, the Kafkaesque nightmare in which universities threaten to punish educators remains real.

But what has brought us to this point has an even wider history, one that highlights the common interest of teachers and students as against the agenda of our university. It began with the decision to introduce fees under the Labour government in 1998, and continues with a shift in the financing of education from the government to individuals, and the replacement of grants with loans, helping to drive up student debt levels to the highest in Europe. Tuition rates have roughly tripled for many universities under the coalition government, helping to further redefine both how our society values education, and how it is financed. At present, England has led the way, indebting those seeking an education at rates even surpassing the United States, widely regarded as the leader in this new industry of debt. Here in St Andrews, our administration openly touts the acquisition of international students not subject to tuition caps as key in its drive towards “modernization”.

The average English graduate now walks out with a diploma and £32,220 in debt. Apparently, this development is a source of envy amongst our administration.

Understandably, the introduction of this crushing amount of debt has redefined the purpose of a university education. Today, a British undergraduate is competing to get an education that conforms to an increasingly narrow set of criteria, many of which have comparatively little to do with teaching. One advisory manual produced by a prominent UK consulting firm cautions universities that “with rising student expectation and intense competition as students take on a larger financial burden for their studies, institutions need to invest in infrastructure” adding that this will “demand greater availability of working capital from institutions than before” in order to finance such investments, concluding ominously that “rising staff and pension costs also continue to loom large for the sector in the future”. By this analysis, teachers appear to be getting in the way of the “business of education”.

Today, the Kafkaesque nightmare in which universities threaten to punish educators remains real.

All of this is driven by the fact that credit does not abide by the same limitations as financing within one’s means. Students understandably hoping to improve their position in the labour market can borrow today with much more certainty than repayment. And in a world of low interest rates and an increasingly emboldened investor class, our government has sought to externalize the costs of an education onto students while lenders to cash-strapped universities seek to commodify the educational experience to capture as much of the rising debt bubble as possible. This is not sustainable, and the contempt with which the present model of education holds both students and teachers is evidence that they are but intermediaries in a profit model of stamping students with debt and loading educational institutions with onerous capital investments in the name of competitiveness.

With so much riding on education, there is little room for the creativity and spontaneity that makes a career in education so stimulating. Students are now paying for a product, not an experience. The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in 2016 is but a formalization of this commodity-based approach to education, enabling universities that meet a minimum set of criteria to evade tuition caps, and lowering the standards for newer degree-granting universities. The Office for Students (OfS), an oxymoron par excellance, also numbers amongst this flurry of mind numbing bureaucratic exercises which are ostensibly the blessings of a “free market” approach to education. The result is a box-checking based educational system, and the formalization of an educational experience which cannot but prioritize the tangible measures of an education.

Here we stand, we can do no other

Teachers, however, do not appear to count amongst those tangible elements. In order to increase the “working capital” on hand, universities have allowed teacher pay to slide almost 20%, suggesting that they are well aware of the pesky elements “looming large” in the future. Teachers are now but another input, and a comparatively poor selling point at that. In order to accomplish this transfer, they have also taken a cue from the casualized labour market: insecure workers don’t ask questions. Here in St Andrews, our staff was subjected to a thinly veiled threat to cut equality and diversity programs in the name of clawing back the losses that a denial of employers’ right to rewrite the social contract between teachers and the administration would ostensibly accrue. Even today, they are asking teachers to abandon the last measure of security, their retirement, because “times are tough”, and “everyone is in this together.”

If only. To effect this massive suppression in teachers’ wages, British universities have taken a page out of the American educational system, pumping up the size of administrative bureaucracies in order to effect these unpopular policies. Vice-Chancellors, linchpins in this top-down transformation, have been cushioned from the onslaught on teacher salaries, and a few have seen grotesquely large increases in salary as a reward.

To all of this, we say “enough”. This crisis is an opportunity to fight back. Our government has consistently cut funding for our universities over the last decade. In return for this, governments have given universities the green light to raise fees, patching over the difference by producing a now-booming market in student debt. Yet teachers do not see the benefits of this increasing revenue, and students are increasingly becoming customers. Neither are the beneficiaries of the current system. Free inquiry, the basis of a free society, is only as secure as the educators who carry it out. To defend it, then, is to defend our teachers, here and now. We must demand a categorical defense of the defined benefit pension our teachers were promised. We must demand a categorial defense of the equality and diversity programs which we are justifiably proud of. And we must demand a commitment to a concrete plan to improve the employment security of our teachers and staff.

We demand a free and democratic university. For teachers. For students. For us all.

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