Posted by: sarahwakefield | November 2, 2010

Week Eighteen and Nineteen – too big to handle? Browne and the Comprehensive Spending Review

Well, this was a depressing few weeks in many ways, so it was a good job we had some great events to lift the spirits, including a General Meeting with enough people to go ahead for the first time in a year and a half. I’ve also had the chance to talk to students who are leading various societies and give them advice and encouragement about overcoming difficulties to achieve great things with the people engaged in your cause.
However, this was the fortnight in which the biggest shake up proposals for higher education in decades was announced. The Browne Review came out with some truly radical proposals. The NUS had been bracing itself for reacting to a proposed fee structure of £5000-£7000 per year and what appeared was a proposal for an unlimited fee structure, loans which will be charged at commercial rates and a massive cut in the teaching budget for Universities – including a proposal to entirely cut the government teaching budget for Arts and Humanities. This would mean for the University to even put in what they do at the moment for these subjects they would have to charge, occurring to some University Deans I’ve spoken to, well above £7000 a year to make up the deficit.
From the Universities there seems to be concern about who will fund the gap if fees go up by this amount as, ironically, it won’t help the national deficit. This is because the government funds student loans until we repay them and this can take decades. This suggests that the proposals suggested by Browne are a philosophical and political one about the nature of Higher Education rather than the economic one it is being presented as.  Indeed David Willets has spoken about the need to introduce market discipline into the higher education sector.
Suggesting that students pay the full amount of their fees implies that there is one beneficiary of a university education – the student themselves. Of course in reality the stakeholders in you and I receiving higher education are much wider; as a society the better educated your population is the more successful you are economically, the more peaceful the country is, it presents businesses with employees who have broader critical thinking skills, the ability to mingle with those outside of their social group and work to deadlines within their own timetable.
However, there are some more immediate benefits of University which are often not celebrated. I come from Durham which is a University City which economically depends massively on the student and staff population of the University particularly as, unfortunately,  business in the North East is less dynamic than in many other areas. Here the Univerisity provides hundreds of jobs
One thing I will be mourning which is not news worthy in many ways, but for me has been an important part of life here, will be the further loss of diversity in Student Union events and activities. With the increase in fees and less generous loans the need for students to work during their degrees will become ever more pressing. I was lucky to receive an allowance from my parents and Grandad which allowed me to throw my energies outside of academia into Union activities which ultimately led to my election to this post. I have many friends who have limited their extra curricular activities, be it in sport, campaigning or leading a society because earning money needs to come first. This can only be set to continue with the increase in fees and demand for part-time degrees. Something with the student movement must consider over the coming months is how we will restructure and allow ourselves to be accessible to those who are likely to most need the protection of a Union.
On the day after the Browne Review Nancy, our Vice Chancellor came in to UMSU. She received some searching questions about the University’s reaction to Browne and CSR, but on the whole they have chosen to stay silent on Browne. However, she concurs that there are massive dangers to cutting funding and has been speaking out against this.
The University had been modelling for cuts of 30-35% and although the CSR headlined at 25% cuts for HE, “the devil is in the detail” according to a source in HEFCE. The CSR has said that it is building on the Browne Report and it is likely to be a wrap in Parliament. All LibDems signed a pledge before the election to vote against any increase in tuition fees (as many of them still argue for free education). However, it looks like the majority of them will be going back on this. Please do lobby your local MP on this issue and ask them to vote against the proposal to increase fees and make massive structural cuts to Higher Education. Even if they attempt to soften the blow by keeping the cap generously at £7000 this will prevent problems for University funding because of the cuts there are making and also for students who will think about their debt before they apply.
Over 400 students from Manchester will be marching at the national demo on 10th November and if you would like to join them coach tickets can be purchased from the Union ticket office for £5. You can find out more information about the demo at www.demo2010.org
On a lighter note, at our General Meeting on 20th October we managed to pass a policy which states that Manchester students are against the cuts to higher education and on the day of CSR it was certainly timely to do so. We also passed five other policies, including holding a referendum on online voting for General Meetings, Peace through Education, Unite Against Fascism, Ethical Union Policy and Representation for International students.
There was some controversy around this meeting as shortly after a member of the Union called for a quorum count (a count to see if we still had the needed 300 people in the room) we lost quorum. However, as for 30 minutes after this count has happened the chair doesn’t have to accept another call for the count, several motions got passed in this period with less than 300 people in the room. It wasn’t an ideal situation and it has left several members of the Union angry. I hope that we can find a solution to this in the governance review which will be undertaking in the coming months.

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