I’ve spent my entire adult life in universities, all but four years as a student or employee of British universities. This is a narrower life experience than I might have wanted but it’s been a good vantage point to understand how British Higher Education got to where it is now. These (ahem) almost 37 years have seen our universities completely transformed through a process of ‘financialization’ - steadily entrenching financial imperatives as the dominant logic in teaching, learning and research.
This was only just beginning when I began studying Modern Languages at the University of Bradford as a clueless teenager for whom moving from East to West Yorkshire was already a leap into the unknown. Bradford was a victim of the first round of swingeing cuts imposed by the University Grants Committee, an opaque quango charged with divvying up the money the government gave universities. The UGC, faced with a slashed budget, hammered the new technological 1960s universities like Bradford particularly hard, cutting their funds by around a third. The disillusionment amongst staff was palpable. But there was an upside. By 1989, when one of my lecturers won a grant to go on sabbatical, the supply of new PhDs was so thin I was offered a one-year position, a week after graduating, to replace her. I probably owe my career to that lucky break.
The 1980s cuts and their unequal distribution were the result of government fiat, not market forces. The long game was to turn higher education into a market, following the logic of privatisation and deregulation the Thatcher government had extended to other sectors, such as energy, healthcare and housing. But to have a market, you need two things British higher education didn’t yet have - prices, and paying customers. Before 1998, the government would allocate funding to universities for teaching, and universities would choose students. No money changed hands - indeed, until 1990 students were offered maintenance grants (grants, not loans) to meet their living costs. I left university with a degree which had cost me literally nothing.
Given the largely middle class backgrounds of the beneficiaries it would take some time before a government was brave enough to make students pay for their studies. A key was the dramatic expansion of the sector after the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which created dozens of new universities and induced a sharp increase in student numbers. However, government didn’t increase university funding proportionately, so that the ‘unit of resource’ - the amount of money available to pay for teaching a student - was rapidly eroded. The stage was set for the financialization of the student experience: government could not possibly fund half of young people to go to university the way it had funded the privileged minority I had belonged to. Instead, it would have to claw some of that money back from the beneficiaries of higher education.
The 1998 Teaching and Higher Education Act was passed under the Labour government of Tony Blair, but implemented recommendations from the Dearing Enquiry established by the Conservative government of John Major, showing a remarkable elite consensus around the emerging financialized model. It established that students, already the recipients of student loans for living costs since the 1990 establishment of the Student Loans Company, would now have part of the costs of tuition loaded onto their liabilities as well. So, wait, what was free for me would now be thousands of pounds in debt hanging over millions of young people? How could they get away with that?
The answer was by selling education as a financial product. Getting a degree would be like buying a house - take out a loan, and pay it back over time, cashing in easy profits in the meantime as your capital grows. Like in housing and pensions, financialization offered the promise of a free lunch - the booming financial and real estate markets turned ordinary people into millionaires. Students, too, would win big, as their potential earnings would far outweigh the loans they would take out. Protests were muted - the cohorts of undergraduates I was teaching in my early career years seemed resigned to falling into debt, but confident of their prospects in any case. Increasingly, universities were competing over students, to make sure numbers, and incomes, went up. Market forces would deliver student choice and higher quality, as we would all be working hard to deliver a product worth paying for.
It turned out that even the governments that brought these measures in didn’t really believe that higher education could work as a deregulated market. Caps on student recruitment were (sensibly) retained so that the elite universities couldn’t snaffle all the most qualified students, and a cumbersome (and in my experience entirely dysfunctional) monitoring regime was instituted to ensure teaching ‘quality’ was maintained. And, in particular, tuition fees remained the same, whether you were studying at Oxford, Oxford Brookes, or indeed Bradford (which in the meantime had closed down the pioneering Modern Languages programme I had graduated from, struggling with student recruitment in the aftermath of the Salman Rushdie book burnings). What kind of a market doesn’t have a price mechanism? The Higher Education Act of 2004, which trebled fees to £3000 per year, also opened up the possibility of institutions cutting their fees below the maximum level. None took up this opportunity.
There’s a certain irony in the way the global financial meltdown of the late 2000s paved the way for the completion of the process of financialization under the ill-fated Conservative-Liberal coalition which took over from New Labour. Outmanoeuvred by their more experienced partners, the Liberal Democrats inexplicably not only signed up to, but took charge of implementing, another tripling of tuition fees, this time to £9000 per annum, by some distance the highest fees in Europe. This left the typical British undergraduate after 2012 facing debts of between £27000 to £45000 on graduating, a sum which would have been enough to put down a healthy deposit on a house, had house prices not risen to around 10x average incomes in the meantime. The 2012 reform also mostly eliminated direct funding from government to universities, leaving the loans students took out as almost the sole source of funding for undergraduate teaching in England.
So now we had paying customers, and plenty of scope for universities to compete on price. But they mostly didn’t. In fact, successive raises of tuitions fees have actually signaled a bonanza in university funding, with funding per student actually doubling between 1996 and 2016 as almost all degree programmes were charged at the maximum rate. So why, amidst booming revenues, are universities now in the fourth year of a bitter dispute with their employees over pay, pensions and precarious contracts? Where did all the money go?
Part of the answer is that universities have embarked on a construction spree, with shiny new buildings popping up on campuses up and down the country. I’m the lucky inhabitant of one of them - LSE’s impressive new Centre Building, recipient of prestigious architectural awards. Much of this building boom is financed by debt - top universities are perceived as very good credit risks, and institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and LSE have been able to raise funds by issuing very long term bonds at astonishingly low interest rates. Others, desperate to keep up in the arms race to grab their share of home and international students, are taking bigger risks to embellish their real estate. And all this building - some of which is beneficial to staff and students, of course - has a cost. And one of those costs is what it does to universities’ ability to invest in their staff.
Higher education is, like many markets, prone to asymmetric information. Students, and their parents, are impressed by shiny new buildings, and probably unaware that to help pay for them, universities are increasingly resorting to exploitative employment practices. The most obvious is the growing share of teaching carried out by early career academics on precarious contracts, as institutions respond to financial uncertainty by holding off on recruiting tenure-track positions. The vast majority of these temporary faculty are talented, hard-working and very often excellent and caring teachers, but are faced with huge pressure to publish or perish, and stressed out by their uncertain futures. It is fair to say that prospective students on campus visits are probably paying less attention to universities’ investments in their staff than they are to the plush accommodation on show.
A less obvious consequence is that universities are increasingly highly leveraged institutions who are making the most of the opportunities to raise funds through the financial markets. The rush for debt collides with the sector’s commitment to its pension scheme, the USS. As perverse regulation and opaque accounting practices generate paper deficits for the scheme, the employer ‘covenant’ - the universities’ collective commitment to making up any shortfall in USS pension funding - is becoming more demanding. And this demand conflicts with universities’ keenness to borrow - a commitment to shore up a £92 billion pension scheme undermines the attractiveness to banks and bond buyers of higher education debt. And so, the USS needs to take the strain, stripping academics of their right to the defined benefit pension that we thought we were paying for.
I can’t say I regret becoming an academic - at its best it’s an incredible job that allows you to follow your intellectual curiosity and communicate to and learn from some of the smartest people around, both colleagues and students. At LSE, life for a tenured professor is still a very good one, even though the pressures on the sector are increasingly apparent even here. Elsewhere, academic lives are becoming unsustainable. Talented and committed young people are buffeted from temporary contract to temporary contract, scrambling over the scarce tenure-track positions available as house prices keep rising and job security, let alone pensions, recede. Students pile on debt as landlords get rich for providing substandard housing, and what was given to my generation for free now results in marginal tax rates that no-one else in the economy has to pay. There is another way to do this, and all we need to do is look around. Just a few hundred miles away, millions of students get university education for free in countries no richer than we are. Why can’t ours?