On Newsnight last Wednesday, Alice Swift, a University of Birmingham student, People and Planet an National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) activist joined in a panel debate on the coalition’s Education reforms.

At one particular moment Swift managed to cause some serious consternation from the professional politicians & journalists, Jeremy Paxman in reply to Swift’s assertions that it was in fact the case that courses which students wanted to study were being closed told her she was wrong and then dismissively handed over Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi with “well perhaps you can engage with that.” This led the Tory MP, who himself sat on the Browne review, to exclaim “well if the university are closing courses for which there is a massive demand, well there is something wrong with the university.” However despite their derision Alice is right. Courses which don’t have problems recruiting, which make profits for their university and are highly rated for their teaching are being closed on grounds such as them “not fitting the university’s research profile.”

Paxman and Zahawi are imagining an idealised market in which unprofitable courses which people don’t want to go on fail to compete and are closed, freeing up the excellent courses previously shackled by subsiding low-quality ones. However universities are not businesses and education is not a marketable commodity in a sense that chickpeas are.

Universities are traditionally communities made up of diverse disciplines; if their output could be described as a “good” they would be producing lots of different things. A crude example is that some departments are teaching focused whereas some are researched focused. To an extent i t is true that markets and competition naturally produce specialisation as competitors fight for niches in which to distinguish themselves. With the introduction of a market specialisation is exactly what many universities are doing.

Alice Swift’s University, the University of Birmingham plan is to specialise as a researched focused university. It only wants to keep departments which can produce 4* plus research to ensure its averages are artificially high to impress “the market”. Managers have set a target “research profile” as a criteria for departments to meet or get axed. This means that high quality vocational teaching courses which are socially and economically valuable are being closed because they don’t fit in with the “research profile” that the university is trying to create. This is not the market Paxman and Zahawi imagine is being created. It is not creating value it is destroying it. What is happening is abhorrent and above all stupid.

What we are seeing is the marketisation of the HE. Post 1992 Group University like London Met have being changing to vocational degrees & Russell group (who like to think of themselves as elite) universities have been closing down non-research intensive departments to ensure they score highly in incoming Research Excellent Frameworks (REFs). It’s not that vocational courses are bad; they are in fact extremely valuable often offering a higher rate of employability to students who take them than non-vocational counterparts. What this market is creating is a university system that has one type of course for the “elite” and another type for everyone else.

The Alternative White Paper signed by hundreds of academics sums up why the wider university community should object to this on a fundamental level. Its nine propositions for university include:

“The university is a community made up of diverse disciplines as well as different activities of teaching, research and external collaboration. These activities are all maintained by academics, managers, administrators and a range of support staff, all of whom contribute to what is distinctive about the university as a community.”
We need universities to be communities of learning and research with real diversity to create for students and academics real engagement with the social and intellectual diversity of the entire nation. This means students studying vocational courses mixing with the students on non-vocational degrees. Doctors and Nurses in the same student halls and buildings, researching, learning and studying together.

Swift was right. Paxman and Zahawi don’t get what is going on. However at least Zahawi understands that there is something wrong with this university, as the University of Biringham is gleefully supporting the government’s initiative to create a market in education. David Eastwood is ruthlessly and rapidly trying to implement this market. The consequence is cuts to current staff and students far harder and deeper than eventhose necessary for the government’s plans. If we don’t fight this now we will have the pay the social cost of a divided society and our sciences will have to suffer the burden of disconnection from society’s needs.