A Privatiser’s Charter: the Government’s Universities White paper

Dr.Des Freedman and Dr.Natalie Fenton of Goldsmiths, University of London, Media and Communications Department, discuss the future of British universities.


Dr.Natalie Fenton


This week’s White Paper on Higher Education threatens the biggest shake up of university education in a generation. Its mission is to try and manage the mess that the massive hike in student fees and scrapping of the block teaching grant for arts, humanities, and social sciences left us with. It seeks to promote new private providers in a higher education ‘market’, to increase competition throughout the system, and to commodify the whole concept of a university education.

Competition is one of the key words in the White Paper: competition between institutions, between courses and between academics. Competition, we are told, will “protect the interests of students”. What this really means is that competition will drive down costs. For example, there will now be 20,000 places for institutions (including FE colleges and private providers) charging less than £7500 in fees who “combine good quality with value for money” (p5) – in other words, those institutions most likely to attract students from less privileged backgrounds who, attracted by the lower fees, will be able to pile students high and stack them deep.

Competition goes hand in hand with efficiency: “[w]e expect new courses to offer increased value for money” (p7) and we are told that there is “room for further efficiency savings and institutions should be looking at ways they can save money” (p17). They will be shown the way by new private providers with different business models who will have access to the government loans scheme. Bringing in bargain basement degree providers may take the pressure off the Treasury but it will drive a wedge of inequality between higher education providers and the students they attract.

What this all means is that the English university system is now to be opened up to the likes of private companies like Pearson and Apollo, organisations with a bottom line which is not about education but about making profits.

The White Paper advocates a customer-led model that rewards “satisfaction” over learning and makes the classic neoliberal mistake of treating everything that is paid for as a product, turning education simply into another commodity. You get to choose which product you are going to buy (if you are wealthy enough to find debt acceptable and lucky enough to have got high grades) and if it doesn’t deliver, then as a consumer you can kick up a fuss. So, the new loans regime will “put more power into the hands of students” (p15); the new risk-based quality assurance regimes will give students “power to hold universities to account’” (p37) while more accurate data “will empower prospective students by ensuring much better information on different courses” (p2). This brings a whole new meaning to “student power”.

The White Paper shows that the government is ideologically committed to the privatisation of public institutions. Universities are being encouraged to think and act like private providers and the White Paper is designed to facilitate a whole scale cultural shift in which all universities need to think of themselves now as part of a competitive marketplace. David Willetts, minister of state for Universities and Science made this perfectly clear in an interview on the day the white paper was published, insisting that universities must “not be in the mindset that they are part of the public sector” (Today programme, 28 June). The net outcome will be the emergence of a higher education system that has the private individual rather than the public good as its raison d’etre.

Education has a purpose that does not begin and end with a financial transaction based on fees and a student’s ability to pay or the possibility of shouldering a huge debt that is not common to all. It should not be premised on economic utility above all else where the pursuit of profit is the only determinant of value. The White Paper is a destructive and narrow-minded document that benefits neither students nor universities nor the wider society and, as such, it should be widely opposed. Let the campaigning begin!



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