The initial impact of the unrest at British universities during the heyday of the student movement – roughly 1968 to 1976 – was from our standpoint broadly positive. We welcomed the continuing expansion of higher education, because it challenged the traditional elitist concept of higher education. The movement won real gains in terms of opening up university management, with better representation and consultation for students, junior academics, and non-academic staff. We also succeeded in getting a broader curriculum in many subject areas, and innovation in teaching methods. Student unions ceased to be merely clubs providing social and sporting activities, and developed campaigning skills not only on issues of direct concern to students, but also on much wider issues of national and international politics.
Academic Freedom in Crisis: The Series
Introduction: Academic Freedom in Crisis | Daniel Nehring and Dylan Kerrigan
The Soviet System, Neoliberalism and British Universities | Craig Brandist
The Financialisation of Academic Knowledge Production | Dylan Kerrigan
The Never-Ending Audit®: Questioning the Lecturer Experience | Daniel Nehring
By the end of the 1970s the picture had already darkened considerably. In 1976, the system of five-year grant allocations by the University Grants Committee (UGC), which had provided a degree of financial stability within which individual universities could plan their development, was abandoned as part of the Labour government’s response to the severe fiscal constraints caused by runaway inflation, and by economic adjustment to the huge increase in oil prices in 1973-4. The return of the Tories under Mrs Thatcher in 1979 led to an even fiercer squeeze on credit and the public finances, and thereby to mass unemployment and deindustrialisation. This was accompanied by a sustained campaign against the labour movement, especially in the miners’ strike of 1984-5; legislative assaults on workers’ rights; the privatisation of public-sector utilities; the abandonment of remaining elements of corporatist indicative planning; the channelling of North Sea oil revenues into a revival of foreign investment by British capital; and later the deregulation of the financial sector.
In this context, higher education in the 1980s faced constant financial pressures, amid regular media attacks on both academic staff and management, with claims of waste and irrelevance. For the first time since the war, graduates faced worsening employment prospects, while academic workloads increased even as real pay stagnated. Nevertheless, the reforms of the 1970s largely persisted: academic governance remained more democratic than before, and both research and teaching more diverse. Within the university sector, the Association of University Teachers joined the TUC, reflecting a shift from the model of a professional association to that of a trade union; while the expanding polytechnic sector attracted a more socially diverse intake and proved well able to generate high quality teaching and research.
The 1990s saw dramatic transformations in higher education in the UK: the abolition of the binary divide between universities (under the UGC) and polytechnics and teacher training colleges (mostly under local authority control); the introduction of central regulation and auditing of teaching and research, centred on Teaching Quality Audits and the Research Assessment Exercise; the subordination of academic planning to financial controls that extended down into academic departments and central services alike; continuous increases in workloads under the Orwellian rubric of ‘efficiency gains’; and after the 1997 Dearing Report, the introduction of student fees and the replacement of grants with loans to cover living costs.
Such was the pace and scope of change that it took some time for staff and students across the sector to make sense of it all, let alone to appreciate the wider implications. While academic auditing probably improved the quality of teaching in many ways, it eventually led to a culture of box-ticking and gaming. As for research, while in principle the RAE led to greater transparency, it encouraged efforts by government to concentrate funding in élite institutions, and to many people it led to a culture of conformism. With ‘wealth creation’ now openly seen as a crucial purpose of higher education, research became increasingly judged in terms of its impact on ‘user communities’, which in many fields meant primarily the business sector. Unions found it hard to resist the erosion of working conditions, and to negotiate the shift from academic to financial control systems.
By the turn of the century, New Labour’s policy of expansion at first held out the prospect of improvements, at least for university staff, but instead it only revealed more clearly the extent of the changes, which were soon consolidated into the new-style neoliberal university that now prevails. While everyone knows about £9000-a-year tuition fees for undergraduates, new elements of marketisation have been less noticed, at least until recently: the spread of zero-hours contracts for part-time staff; the private financing of student residences; reductions in staff pensions and other benefits; outsourcing of many services; and the undermining of national collective bargaining.
Hugo Radice is a political economist. Now retired after teaching at the University of Leeds for 30 years, he continues to research and write about contemporary capitalism from a socialist standpoint. He is also an active member of the UK’s Labour Party. For his recent publications, including his 2014 books Global Capitalism: Selected Essays and The European Union After the Crisis, please visit http://www.polis.leeds.ac.uk/people/staff/radice.