The Covid university chaos shows Labour is right on scrapping tuition fees

Alex Maguire

Recent data shows a dramatic increase in Covid cases across the country over the last month as students have returned to university. In a fit of panic, many universities have imposed draconian restrictions on students, often leaving them isolated and confined in their halls. This has resulted in calls from some, mainly current students, for universities to provide refunds on tuition fees. These are calls that Keir Starmer has so far refused to support. However, he has kept to Labour’s pledge under Jeremy Corbyn to abolish tuition fees. The pandemic proves that he is right to do maintain this vow: if there were no tuition fees, we would not have the current crisis on university campuses, as there would not be the same financial imperative for students to return to university. This would have greatly benefited public health.

With the 2010 trebling of tuition fees and removal of government grants, which was as significant as the trebling of fees, universities became excessively dependent on fee income and therefore on students. Higher education become almost completely marketised. Although the government still effectively provides much of the funding – the Student Loan Company is funded by the state – by making students the middleman in this transaction, the government commercialised the relationship between students and universities. Thus, this relationship became one of producer and consumer, and it is because of this that students have been unwisely rushed back to campus. All producers need consumers, otherwise they will fail. For example, Cineworld has recently announced it will be closing for the foreseeable future in the absence of customers.

The financial pressures on universities are stark: in 2019, nearly a quarter of universities reported running a deficit. Similarly, in 2018 higher education debt stood at £12bn. Therefore, many universities felt that they were in an impossible situation and that they had no option but to bring students back to campus; they needed the income from tuition fees and student rent. Although this is prioritising profit over people, without this profit, many universities would fail – depriving more people of higher education in the future. Thus universities were placed in a horrible position by the market, with no support from the government.

Under the previous model for financing universities, there would not have been the same financial necessity to bring students back to campus and the rise in Covid cases would not have been as significant. An unrestrained market forces people to make impossible choices, as what should be relationships between people become relationships between commercial entities. Universities bringing students back is not a million miles away from those who go to work despite having Covid symptoms, because they cannot afford to isolate at home. While Labour has not hesitated in highlighting how economic concerns have led workers and businesses being forced to choose between public heath and paying their bills, it has not done this for universities.

This is not to say that many universities have not behaved appallingly. Some of the measures imposed on students have been excessively oppressive, and others – for instance, extortionate food prices on quarantining students – have been exploitative. Essentially, many universities accepted the financial necessity of bringing students back without accepting the human necessity of caring for them. But universities were also let down and abandoned by the government. The government promised an effective track and trace system that would arrive months before students arrived back at university, and subsequently offered no leadership by declaring that universities were independent bodies. This declaration is a further consequence of the commercialised structure of higher education that tuition fees underpin. When it absolved itself of directly funding universities, the state also absolved itself of the responsibility to organise higher education.

Even if universities had better prepared for the resumption of teaching, such as by providing more remote learning and staggered returns to campus, they would have received little support from the government. The teaching situation and student experience would still be characterised by extreme adversity, and the financial pressures on university would be unchanged. By pledging to repeal tuition fees and bring back government grants, Labour would be accepting the state’s responsibility to fund and help organise higher education.

Universities, the government and Labour should have listened and cooperated with the trade unions representing university staff. In May, a collection of unions including UNISON, Unite the Union and the University Colleges Union (UCU) put forward five tests that higher education institutions must meet in order to resume teaching. The UCU provided plans for alternatives ways of working and has been consistently vocal about the dangers of students returning. These warning were unnecessarily ignored by many universities. But Labour was also largely silent on the danger of universities reopening, and the UCU has been an isolated voice in the last two months. Were UCU affiliated to the Labour Party, this may have been different.

By not working more closely with trade unions and sufficiently agitating about the danger of universities returning, Labour missed a golden political opportunity to highlight the government’s incompetence, support students and uphold its party’s values. It must not allow the same carelessness to prevent it from arguing against the current higher education structure that has exacerbated the impact of the pandemic. I do believe that the majority of staff at universities want to support students and are trying their hardest to do this, painting universities as being completely responsible for the situation on their campuses ignores what caused this in the first place.

The true evil here is the market structure that was imposed on higher education in 2010. Rather than use the university crisis as a stick with which to beat opposition governments, as Scottish Labour have started doing, Labour should be campaigning on the importance of liberating higher education from the market. This is something Labour has previously failed to do. Even while pledging to scrap tuition fees, both Starmer and Corbyn have presented this ambitious as one that would free graduates from debt – a debt that many will not pay back in full anyway – instead of a policy that would end the destructive, pernicious marketisation of higher education.

To compensate for its previous lack of action regarding Covid and higher education, Labour needs to redouble its efforts. The party should support students through its local student branches and Constituency Labour Parties, and work with trade unions to make campuses and teaching safer. At the same time, Labour must underline that the market structure imposed on higher education has heightened this crisis, and champion the necessity of turning the commodity of higher education back into a public good, free of the invisible hand of the market that too often during this crisis has been detrimental to public health.

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