According to recent media reports, a large number of British universities – including many from the prestigious Russell group – are planning accommodation rent hikes of up to 19 percent in the coming academic year.
Despite coming as an unpleasant surprise to many, such a move is a continuation of a consistent trend towards higher and higher costs imposed on students for an education that is steadily deteriorating in quality, even as an increasing number of careers that used to provide on-the-job training now insist on at least one degree as a prerequisite for employment.
This has been the direction of travel ever since Tony Blair’s Labour government expanded Britain’s universities and introduced tuition fees, and the process has accelerated since, especially in the post-2008 era of deepening capitalist crisis.
The privatisation model: paying more for less
Whilst crippling tuition fees tend to get the most attention, these are (for now) generally covered by government loans, repayment of which is deferred until the student has graduated and found a job. Accommodation fees, on the other hand, are invariably far higher than the meagre government ‘maintenance loan’ will cover – sometimes more than double the loan amount.
As a result, many students from poorer backgrounds are having to find full-time employment in menial, exploitative jobs in order to make ends meet – clearly having an adverse effect on every aspect of their studies.
Very often, the university in question does not even provide sufficient accommodation for all its students, who are left to the mercy of private landlords, incurring even higher costs. The standard of private student accommodation is notoriously bad, with mould and vermin rife, and it is often located in neighbourhoods with high rates of violent crime.
Britain’s modern business-focused universities have found an array of ways to extort from their students besides their eye-watering accommodation fees. These can include obliging the them to buy expensive coursebooks, charging well above market prices for amenities such as gym use or canteen food, or forcing students to sign up to rip-off prepaid ‘meal plan’ cards that ‘refresh’ weekly (ie, unspent money is lost each week).
With this shameless milking of students as cash cows, it is clear from the pay packets of university management that talk of universities being short of funds is utter nonsense. Many vice-chancellors earn salaries of half a million pounds a year and even have personal chauffeurs to drive them around.
During this author’s time at Birmingham university, for example, the campus resembled a perpetual construction site, as the bonanza of fees extorted from students was spent on academically-useless vanity projects such as an onsite hotel and various new buildings that may have looked pretty on the outside but provided very little space for study on the inside.
Education quality declining
Over the last three decades, Britain’s universities have been steadily transformed from places of education and study to profit-taking machines for rich shareholders. This has been accompanied by a general degeneration of the university experience: outside of their coursework, students are encouraged to do very little other than go nightclubbing and drink themselves into a stupor.
In stark contrast to the propaganda about ‘free speech’ at universities, expression of any kind of politics that contradict the ‘official’ view of Britain’s imperialist bourgeoisie is heavily policed and censored.
The increasing role of the profit motive in the running of educational institutions is often defended by free market advocates, who claim that promoting ‘competition’ will improve quality and allow students to ‘shop around’. If we step outside of the libertarian Neverland, however, and into the real world, the modern university system more closely resembles a cartel of organised monopolists than a system of free competition – as evidenced by the fact that despite being nominally free to attract students by lowering their tuition fees, not a single university has ever charged a penny less than the maximum possible fee set by the government.
The commodification of university education and the subsequent decline in standards is just one part of the steady privatisation of Britain’s public services in the conditions of capitalist overproduction crisis. As existing avenues for profit dry up, new ones need to be found and old ones more intensely exploited.
This is an intrinsic feature of the decaying capitalist system and will not go away until that system is overthrown and replaced with a socialist one based on economic planning in the interest of the working masses.
Incurable reformists, clinging to their belief that a ‘left Labour’ government will reverse this decay, are sadly deluded. Not only because of the imperialist nature of the Labour party, but because no party committed to working within the confines of the capitalist system can resolve the systemic contradictions that drive privatisation.
The establishment of high-quality, free, cradle-to-grave education systems in the former socialist nations of eastern Europe transformed the scientific and technical bases of those countries, as well as bringing meaning, culture and fulfilment to their people. Indeed, many alumni of socialist education systems are still proving invaluable in restored capitalist regimes – GDR-educated Angela Merkel, for instance, and Soviet-educated Vladimir Putin and his generals.
In this, as in so many other fields of social life, it is becoming ever clearer that there is no alternative to scientific socialism and socialist revolution if we really wish to solve workers’ problems and provide a decent life to all.