The announcement by Peter Mandelson on the 22nd of December of an extra £135m worth of funding cuts to Higher Education, which brought the total level of education cuts in the UK to £500m, revealed the government’s plans for Higher Education. In a letter to the Higher Education funding body HEFCE, Mandelson made it clear what he wanted to see in the sector: more business control over education, ‘fast track’ stripped-down degrees, and intensified competition for funding between universities. These changes go hand-in-hand with a jobs massacre in the sector. Before Mandelson’s latest announcement, the University and College Union calculated that over 6,000 jobs were at risk in Higher and Further Education across the UK. With these additional cuts, that figure is certain to grow.
In his letter, Lord Mandelson calls for the creation of two-year degrees. He calls this “diverse provision” – in reality it is a way of maintaining a business-friendly skills base in society on the cheap, and will be paid for in higher class sizes, greater workloads, and a dumbed-down, exam-driven syllabus. In addition, the letter is explicit that the content of courses needs to be more directly determined by business interests. It calls for clearer signals from business on what skills employers want in their workers, and for “a mechanism to redeploy funds, on a competitive basis, to those institutions that are able and willing to develop… provision in these key areas”. In other words, the government wants to force institutions of learning to provide only the courses that businesses want to see, or to have funds withdrawn.
The government has been building a business-oriented education sector for some time now. Last year student activists disrupted the latest in a series of conferences between business leaders and university bosses aimed at expanding the influence of business in higher education.
The cuts and restructuring that have been taking place since the introduction of fees are now set to intensify in the wake of the economic crisis. The student movement and the unions that organise education workers have to get themselves in shape – fast – to resist these attacks.
We need unity between staff and students, a realistic programme of industrial and political struggle in the immediate term, and a willingness to take radical direct action- occupations, unofficial action and secondary action all need to see a comeback in the education sector.