Universities are undergoing an unprecedented crisis, with many facing bankruptcy. The representative organisation for British universities, Universities UK (UUK) recently asked the government for a £2 billion bailout to help them cope with the effects of the pandemic.
This would help offset the lost money resulting from fewer international students, who provide at least a fifth of income for 48 universities and substantial amounts for others. International students are, in effect, treated as cash cows - often paying more than three times as much for the same course as British students. Therefore, the collapse in international travel that the pandemic has brought is a major concern for UK universities.
As well as this, the pandemic is inevitably going to affect how universities function in the coming months. In institutions where thousands of students are packed into a comparatively small space, social distancing will be impossible.
Since the lockdown began, universities have had to move all of their teaching online. This could become the new norm.
The government’s universities minister, Michelle Donelan, has said that universities can continue to charge the £9,250 per year fee for tuition, even if all teaching is done online. This will not sit well with students - and understandably so.
All I’m saying is that if classes move to online in September, tuition fees NEED to be brought down lower BIG TIME. Online learning is no where near equivalent to learning in a classroom and I shouldn’t have to spend my money on a half ass learning experience!— C♡ (@RayRouleau) May 13, 2020
Many students may choose to defer going to university until they are able to access in-person teaching, resulting in a fall in domestic students too. Universities’ finances are therefore facing a dire situation.
The government has refused to budge on demands for a bailout, however. Instead, universities will be entitled to the £2.6 billion of tuition fees early - rather than having to wait until the start of the next academic year in September - in order to help them keep afloat.
Yet this loan is merely an attempt to delay the inevitable: the bankruptcy facing universities. The government is simply kicking the can down the road and failing to address the black hole in university funding.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, many smaller universities were struggling, facing large deficits year after year. Even the most prestigious institutions are taking on increasing debts.
As is always the case, it will not be the vice-chancellors and senior management who suffer. They will continue to reward themselves with massive salaries and perks.
Instead, the financial damage will be the burden of staff and students, as universities are forced to make further drastic cuts in order to stay afloat.
Workers will lose their jobs; remaining staff will be given increasing workloads; and the scourge of casualisation will further increase.
As recent strikes by lecturers’ union the UCU demonstrate, workers in higher education were already facing attacks on pensions, pay, and conditions prior to the pandemic. But these conditions will become even more precarious as a new wave of austerity hits in the aftermath of the lockdown.
It is clear that capitalism cannot support our education system. Already, austerity, marketisation, and outsourcing are eroding the pillars that our universities are built upon.
If universities are now left to anarchic market forces, many institutions will go bust. This will hurt workers and students in equal measure, depriving thousands of their livelihoods and their future.
Students must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with staff in the fight against this austerity.
Ultimately, we need to overthrow this rotten, exploitative, and crisis-ridden capitalist system. The wealth exists in society to fully fund higher education for all. But this is not profitable for the capitalists.
Education is not a business. We need a socialist alternative that is run in the interests of workers and students, rather than the profits of big business and the bosses.