A brief look at privatisation and outsourcing in higher education.
Recently, London Metropolitan University announced that it would be hawking off services such as IT and libraries to the private sector. A bidding war will now take place between various companies that are salivating at the prospect of getting their grubby hands on such a lucrative cash cow.
Against the backdrop of the Health & social Care bill and creeping privatisation in the NHS, the potential privatisation and dismantling of our universities has in the main, passed the general public by. Ask people what they think the single biggest issue facing Higher Education is, and they are likely to tell you it is tuition fees. However in the not too distant future that may change.
Whether we like it or not, tuition fees are here to stay. Although university applications are down by around 10%, on the whole people are accepting the fees. In a similar way to gas, electric, and petrol – as long as people continue to put their hands in their pockets, the ruling elite will continue to increase prices.
The timescale of the wholesale privatisation of the university system may be impeded or interrupted by changes in government, but ultimately it will happen. Whilst not clinging to the ridiculous and outdated notion that nationalised industries are some kind of panacea, as many of the dinosaur left do, I would agree that whilst all state run services are far from ideal, they should not be left to the mercy of the ‘market’.
You only need to look at the complete failure of the privatisation experiment that was conducted on the railways, water, gas, and electric, to see what lies ahead should the ‘market’ get hold of Higher Education. Just as the water companies have failed to upgrade a Victorian pipeline network in over twenty years of private ownership, in order to cream off profits and pay large dividends to shareholders, higher Education will suffer a similar fate.
We can expect years of underinvestment, asset stripping, and then when the inevitable financial difficulties arise, they will beg the state for a hand-out.
Higher Education will suffer immeasurably through privatisation, but what will the changes actually look like for students and staff?
Well, courses that are not deemed to be ‘necessary’, i.e. Profitable, will be scrapped, student to staff ratios will increase, and there will be the dumbing down of academic standards, and to staff qualifications and experience.
Academic staff will see teaching hours rise, and time for research and scholarly activity shrink, and pastoral support will only exist ‘on paper’.
Administration staff will be slashed, which will lead to teaching staff undertaking extra responsibilities. Competition between universities will lead to ‘creative’ presentation of results, and ‘cooking of the books’, in order to entice new students.
Buildings and land deemed to be superfluous or that are in premium locations will be sold, and any monies will be creamed off rather than being re-invested. This will lead to fewer buildings, and long-term problems such as overcrowding, and facilities that are no longer fit for purpose.
Libraries will close or downsize, and will rarely stock new books. Halls of residence will be sold by the new owners to another set of profiteers, who will increase capacity by making conditions even more cramped, whilst at the same time increasing already extortionate prices.
Student support services, counselling, and subsidies to various student run initiatives such as newspapers, elections, and student unions will disappear, and support for students with extra needs will be stripped back to a token level.
Staffing levels across the board will be reduced, pay will be slashed, hours increased, holidays reduced, sick pay reduced, professional development will disappear, and pensions will be attacked even further.
As in the health service, the largest expense in Higher Education is that of staff. Therefore the obvious way that a private company will reduce its expenses is to sack staff, and to attack the terms and conditions of the staff that remain.
The government of the day will care little for the issues highlighted. They do not measure the success of privatisation by such trivial indicators. David Willetts, or whoever follows him will only be interested in whether Higher Education is off the government books, and if the new owners are making a profit.
We can expect those individuals from government who worked on the privatisation project to join the University Chancellors and Deans who so welcomed it, into new highly paid consultancy roles and directorships within the upper echelons of the new private owners. No doubt a peerage or two will follow.
The management at London Metropolitan University have refrained from using terms such as, ‘outsourcing’ or ‘privatisation’. Instead, they talk of, ‘shared ownership’, ‘shared service models’, and ‘partnership’, in a laughably transparent attempt to mask the real agenda.
Privatisation will mean that many Universities will cease to exist. This in-turn will mean the cost of going to university will rise, as students will have to travel further or even move away from home in order to study. Coupled with the massive hike in tuition fees, it will mean that a university education will once more be the preserve of the rich and privileged.
You may hear from time to time the ruling elite talking about the need for increased social mobility. The truth of the matter is that they want nothing of the sort. After all, there is only room for so many pigs at the trough.
First published in Freedom Newspaper