What does the UK 2019 election result mean for working and learning conditions within Higher Education?

What does the UK 2019 election result mean for working and learning conditions within Higher Education?

Donatella Alessandrini, Emily Grabham, Suhraiya Jivraj and Rose Parfitt

As results from the 2019 General Election sink in, many of us have been reflecting on what the Conservative win means for Higher Education (HE) in the UK.

A group of colleagues at Kent Law School spent some time before the election comparing manifestos in the context of the 2019 Augar review, the marketisation of HE, and the on-going industrial action over gender and race pay gaps, casualisation, overwork, and pensions in the university sector. We wanted to grasp the implications of the manifestos of the major parties at this pivotal point – both for the country and for universities – and to discuss them with our colleagues and students. Questions like how markets and state funding figured in each manifesto, the extent of any proposed restructuring of the HE system and the status of university workers and students were all, we suspected, intricately connected with how each party understood the links between politics, society and the economy more generally. Today, in the cold light of January 2020, it seems more important than ever to make sense of those connections.

It was clear from the moment the manifestos were released that there couldn’t have been more at stake. HE in the UK is currently based on a funding model that is both unsustainable and undesirable. Evidently, if the election result left the governing party with a sufficient mandate for action, the continuation of this model could only lead to increased competition for students, increased precarity and inequality for staff and a more intensive drive towards marketisation of the sector overall.

UK universities are now largely dependent on student fees, with only around a quarter of their funding derived from government grants. Some universities are able to supplement these income sources with private endowments, estates, and large external grants captured by their staff (Universities UK, University Funding Explained). However, the extent to which universities have now been made dependent on student fees creates financial pressure and competition so intense that many universities are seeking to increase recruitment far beyond what is sustainable for current staffing levels. In this brutally competitive market, some universities are able to over-recruit but others are not. And if they cannot recruit enough students, and have no other means of supplementing their income, they must – under the terms of the 2017 HE and Research Actundergo compulsory restructuring to limit their expenditure. If this restructuring is unsuccessful, the Act implies, they will have little choice but to exit the market.

Operating under this level of financial pressure means that, instead of focusing on education, universities and academics currently act as private enterprises, competing for students’ fees, both at home and overseas. Students become potential ‘markets’ to be tapped into. The other side of the coin, of course, is that students now graduate with an average debt of no less than £57,000 (Institute of Fiscal Studies, 2017). There has been much debate on whether student fees can be best conceived of as debt or a graduate tax, and, more recently, on whether the introduction of fees has constrained access to HE, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Although the issue of access is extremely complex and involves many factors other than the level of tuition fees, there is a clear link between student fees, overwork and casualisation among university workers, significant gender and race pay gaps and worsening learning/working conditions both for students and staff. These are all aspects of the same problem: a model that increases competition through positioning students as consumers whilst driving down working conditions and increasing precarity in the university sector.

In stark contrast to this gloomy on-the-ground situation, the vision of HE put forward in the Labour Party manifesto was radical, far-reaching and detailed. Labour committed to ‘end[ing] the free market experiment in higher education’, abolishing tuition fees, and reinstating maintenance grants. A new funding formula would aim to ensure adequate funding for teaching and research across the sector, thereby reducing unnecessary competition, whilst widening access to HE through ‘contextual admissions’. In such a system, a market regulator would not be appropriate. The Office for Students would be transformed into the National Education Service with a clear mandate to act in the public interest. In short, the Party signaled a willingness to pursue a wholly new approach that would move HE away from competition, consumerism and marketisation.

Compared to this, the Conservative Party manifesto was lacking in any level of concrete detail. The Conservatives undertook to consider the recommendations of the independent panel report of post 18 education and funding known as the Augar review.  These included, among other things, the reduction of student fees from £9,000 to £7,500 (good for students, but disaster-in-waiting for an HE system that already struggling to stay afloat under the current fee-based model), lower interest rates on student loans and an extension of the repayment period from 30 to 40 years. Details, however, remained fuzzy. As far as tuition fees were concerned, for example, the Conservatives promised to ‘look at’ the question of interest rates ‘with a view to reducing the burden of debt on students.’ Their other preoccupations were exclusively with grade inflation, low-quality courses and the application and offer system – problems attributed, not to the funding model, but to universities themselves. This suggested an approach to HE that would, at best, continue with the status quo of a market-driven approach to HE funding and, at worst, accelerate the restructuring and exit of many HE institutions should they be unable to survive the reduction of tuition fees.

Another huge issue was the question of each party’s position on workers’ rights. Working conditions for university staff are learning conditions for students, after all (not to mention their own working conditions in the future, if not in the present). No less than 46% of UK universities are already using ‘zero hour contracts’ to deliver teaching and some 68% of research staff are on fixed-term contracts (UCU, Stamp Out Casual Contracts, 2019). Even the lucky ones, those of us on full-time academic contracts, are paid for only 35 hours per week while working, on average, over 50 hours a week, including evenings, weekends, and holidays, with no question of paid overtime (THE, Work-Life Balance, 2018). The gender pay gaps in UK universities are worse than the national average (13.7% against an average of 9.1%) and the ethnicity pay gap – a massive 26% — is even worse (BBC, Big University Gender Pay Gap Revealed, 2019). And all this on top of the fact that the average salary of university workers has fallen by 17% in real terms over the past decade (THE, There are Questions to Answer on Falling Salaries, 2017). These problems are not, of course, limited to academic staff. On the contrary, the situation is just as bad, if not worse, for professional staff. As the International Economic Law Collective put it recently: ‘The increasing casualisation of teaching flows directly from the erosion of labour conditions sponsored through international economic law global norms in other sectors of the global economy’ (@iel_collective, 28 November 2019).

The big question, then, was how each party understood the role of the labour market as a sector of the economy. The Labour Party’s vision was one in which work ‘should provide a decent life for all, guaranteeing not just dignity and respect in the workplace, but also the income and leisure time to allow for a fulfilling life outside it’. Labour committed to banning zero hours contracts and giving all workers rights from their first day on the job, including 12 months statutory maternity pay (up from 9 months) plus 4 weeks paternity leave, a new right to bereavement leave, and a Living Wage of at least £10/hour for all 16+ year olds. The Labour Manifesto also pledged to increase wages through sectoral collective bargaining; end bogus self-employment so employers could no longer avoid granting workers their rights; require employers to implement plans to eradicate the gender pay gap and pay inequalities underpinned by race and/or disability or face fines; establish a new Ministry of Employment Rights giving working people a voice in Cabinet, and more.

By contrast, and once again, when it came to the labour market, the Conservative manifesto was stronger on vision than it was on concrete detail. The vision of employment rights the Conservative Party evoked – individualistic, self-supporting, with only minimal state oversight – indicated that in the HE context, the Conservatives would not – and will not – be taking any effective measures against casualisation, over-work, or inequalities in pay and other conditions. As the Conservative Manifesto put it: ‘Our vision for the labour market … is not one where the state does everything for you. It is one where the state does everything it can to help you help yourself… [and] in which a deep commitment to entrepreneurship and business is matched by a desire to ensure that the jobs that are created are highly skilled, well-paid and fulfilling’. The manifesto did mention ‘measures to protect those in low-paid work and the gig economy’ and also stated that workers would have a right to request a more predictable contracts, but gave no details as to what this might mean in practice, and no explicit commitment to ending casualisation. Sadly, when set against the unapologetically individualistic, market-oriented vision not just of the manifesto but of the last decade, this was hardly a surprise.

Without doubt, as all this made clear to us, the Labour Manifesto held out real hope for the radical transformation of working and learning conditions in HE – conditions which have become increasingly degraded and precarious over the past decade. But we were hardly the only ones to reach this conclusion. As 164 of the UK’s leading economists pointed out, for years economic policy has systematically ‘prioritised consumption over investment, short-term financial returns over long-term innovation, rising asset values over rising wages, and deficit reduction over the quality of public services’. By contrast, they argued, it was clear that the Labour Party had ‘not only understood the deep problems we face, but…devised serious proposals for dealing with them,’ including massive green-oriented investment.

The opportunity for transforming the precarious political economic conditions under which higher education institutions operate might have been missed, at least for the time being, but the struggle against those conditions will only intensify.

For the full analysis of the Conservative Party, Labour Party and Liberal Democrats manifesto implications for HE go to: https://legalacstrikeagain.blogspot.com/


Donatella Alessandrini is a Professor at Kent Law School. Her research lies at the intersection of law and political economy, with a particular interest in development studies, critical trade and development literature, feminist political economy and political theory. Emily Grabham is a Professor at Kent Law School. Emily is a socio-legal scholar with research interests in labour and employment law, law and time, and feminist legal theory. Her research draws on methods and perspectives from sociology and social anthropology. Suhraiya Jivraj is a Reader at Kent Law School. Her work draws on critical race/religion theories and feminist/queer of colour de-colonial perspectives to explore contemporary socio-legal problematics in the fields of law and religion, equalities, anti-discrimination and human rights law, gender and sexuality and Islamic family law. Rose Parfitt is a Lecturer at Kent Law School. Her research is focused on the development of a new set of techniques aimed at uncovering, making sense of and challenging international law’s role in the creation and preservation of a world in which wealth, power and pleasure are distributed more and more unequally.

IMAGE CREDIT: The A-Line: a journal of progressive thought