Report – EAN Public Forum: What does the withdrawal of the HE Bill mean for our universities

On Tuesday February 21st, the Education Activist Network set up a public forum for staff and students to assess the latest developments in government policy for higher education and to have a strategic discussion about how best to resist it.

More than 50 representatives from 15 institutions (UEL, Goldsmiths, KCL,Westminster,Oxford, Imperial,Greenwich, LSE, SOAS, UCL, London Met,Kingston,Brighton,Sussex, QMUL) participated in a forum which primarily discussed the postponement  of the Higher Education Bill, how government policy as outlined in its HE White Paper continues to be implemented, and how this could be contested.

Blogger and journalist Andrew McGettigan spoke about the implications of the government’s apparent retreat, arguing that primary legislation would be nevertheless be required in order for the government to implement its strategy in full, probably in 2013. He drew attention to the possibility that assurances regarding student loan repayments would be disregarded by the government, which was vulnerable to opposition on this issue.

Professor John Holmwood noted that the government is cloaking itself in the language of fairness and outlined the chaos that is likely to occur in August with students who find, contrary to their expectations, they have AAB grades, and whose places will therefore be removed from government quotas, and who become part of a free-for-all that will play havoc with widening participation targets.

Jim Wolfreys argued that the government’s artificially created admissions market would reinforce existing inequalities by privileging the privileged at entry, leading to a more stratified system. The withdrawal of the HE Bill would not stop the spread of marketisation and elitism, but it did further discredit David Willetts, who should be sacked.

In the discussion, staff pointed out how measures already underway will add to workloads and accelerate an ongoing process of casualization.

Staff and students also spoke about the local strategies they have been developing on their campuses. Representatives from SOAS spoke about their initiative to Democratize SOAS, a campaign between staff and students to understand how the university functions and develop strategies in order to fight against management diktats.

Such networks are also being developed at Goldsmiths – students and staff organised themselves in departmental committees prior to the N30 strikes. Students from UEL reported on how their university was being shut down early and taken over by Olympic activities while more generally a range of services – accommodation, the canteen, cleaning, etc – were being privatised.

Discussion then centred on how to focus opposition to government policy in the short and medium term. The government is planning to return to its agenda for HE but wants to arm itself with arguments first. The need to prepare for further debates over the future of HE was underlined – a comprehensive and detailed picture of each university’s financial situation should be developed – a guide to reading financial statements can be found here

Plans were discussed for a demonstration against Willetts at the Department for Business, Skills and Innovation on March 14, when NUS is staging a national walk-out. The importance of the 28 March pensions strikes – the most direct and effective opposition to the government’s attempt to drive down costs across higher education – was underlined by several speakers – networks of staff and students will be meeting over the next month to ensure that this opposition is voiced loud and clear on pickets, rallies, protests and marches on the day.

About educationactivistnetwork
The education activist network provides national coordination for trade unionists, academics, university workers and student campaigners fighting to defend jobs and education in the UK.

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