American way is the wrong way

December 17, 1999

In spite of Labour assurances, the privatisation of universities is a real threat, claims Zoe Abrams

Both the government and the vice-chancellors of the Russell Group of leading research universities insist that there are no immediate plans to adopt "the American way" by introducing differential tuition fees to Britain. Yet they refuse to give assurances beyond the next general election. In the meantime, there has been a flood of articles from rightwing think-tanks calling for higher education to be privatised.

The flow of information surrounding privatisation has been one-way. There is a sense that the ground is being prepared, so that if the embargo on top-up fees is eventually lifted, the case for universities charging students full-cost fees will have been so strongly made that there will be little opposition left.

We in the Aldwych Group of students at top research universities are determined to stop the culture of inevitability regarding privatisation. The student movement believes that privatisation of higher education would see a return to elitism, social exclusion and limited access.

Proponents of privatisation claim that students will be prepared to pay over the odds to go to university, justifying the expenditure as an investment in a high-salaried career after graduation. But the impact of deregulation of tuition fees on a student's debt burden would be huge.

Privatisation would mean that universities would become even more focused on research. A few key institutions would attract the majority of funding, and the rest would be left to make do. Money for teaching would be lost. There is a fear that non-market-viable subjects (such as the arts) would be subjugated to the cause of raising capital. Business interests would dictate what was studied.

Proponents of privatisation argue that access to higher education for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds would be maintained through scholarships and bursaries. But the current failure of universities to distribute their access funds among students experiencing financial hardship does not inspire confidence.

The government's encouragement to vice-chancellors to raise extra cash for their universities must not become the thin end of the wedge. The student movement will continue to fight to ensure that privatisation is wiped off the policy agenda for good.

Zoe Abrams is co-chair of the Aldwych Group and communications officer, University of Manchester students' union.

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