Coalition reforms to higher education are revealed as nothing more than de facto privatisation.

By Molly Scott Cato

In times of crisis almost anything can be justified. In a similar way the current atmosphere of austerity is being used as a smokescreen to rush through policies that would, if they were properly considered and debated in an atmosphere of calm, be rejected as unthinkable. This is the conclusion of my paper, Free Universities, that the government's claim that "our student finance reforms will deliver savings to help address the large Budget deficit we were left" was disingenuous at best and that in fact the public spending crisis was used as an excuse to private higher education.

A comparison of the government's own figures makes such a conclusion inevitable. During the period of deficit repayment (now extended to 2016) most of the money will still be flowing out to students via the Student Loan Company. By the end of 2010/11 there were around 3.2 million income-contingent student loan borrowers with outstanding loans of around £35 billion. A graph from the funding council for England shows outstanding loans doubling by 2017/18, well beyond the period during which the chancellor has pledged to expunge the deficit from the national balance-sheet.

The focus of the public debate around the 2011 education white paper was on fees and access: if we are to use the market discourse then it was about the demand side of the brave new education market. But what about the supply side? Less thought went into the impact of the new funding model on the universities themselves and what we can see in retrospective was a de facto privatisation. The white paper promised that direct funding to higher education (via the Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE) would be reduced to a mere £3.9 billion by 2014/15, a reduction of some 40% on the £6.5 billion total funding available for 2011/12. That is, of course, an average figure, but in this debate averages are not useful because for many courses, especially those in humanities and social sciences, there will no longer be any public support.

This withdrawal of public funding for a whole range of areas of study that underpin a civilised society is part of the shift towards seeing education as a private rather than a public good. I utterly reject the view of higher education as for purely personal benefit: as a complex society we need those skilled in abstract problem-solving and with specialist knowledge. This is impossible to achieve in a private, finance-driven system since it is difficult to predict what we will require as a society and to ensure that this coincides with what career-oriented students choose to study. Where would we have been in the summer, for example, without sociologists to turn to for explanations of the anger that led to the riots? How can we be sure that in ten or 20 years' time we will have anybody with an understanding of the society we are part of and whose smooth functioning we rely on for our happiness?

Even if we accepted the idea of education being first and foremost about economic advantage, then we should ensure that our universities are preparing students to be future citizens at least as effectively as those of our 'competitors'. Thanks to the Erasmus exchange programme, an example of cultural exchange that is unlikely to survive in the education marketplace, I spend a fortnight each autumn teaching in the Czech Republic. My students are bright, engaged and well-informed. They do not pay fees because their government, in spite of having much less money to play with than ours, values education. They have no equivalent to the English saying, 'If you're so clever, how come you aren't rich?' And in case you were beginning to think otherwise, I can let you know that almost exactly the same proportion of young people achieve higher education in the Czech Republic as in the UK.

The report argues that we should commit ourselves to higher education and follow the example of our Czech partners in fully funding university places. Given the unlikelihood of this gaining political support, I also propose three alternative funding models that could be achieved within the existing neoliberal paradigm, ranging from a John Lewis university, which would surely find favour with the Coalition, through a multi-stakeholder co-operative, to a system of 'free universities' operating as an alternative economy facilitated through a new educationally focused currency.

This spring we will see the impact the changes to university funding have on applications to universities: the deadline for Ucas applications was Sunday but Ucas, who have been assiduous in managing the news story, will not be releasing the official data until January 30th. We wait to see whether the 'late surge' they identified at the beginning of the month is confirmed – and more importantly whether the students who have applied for places arrive at campuses in September.

Molly Scott Cato is professor of strategy and sustainability at Roehampton University

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