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  • Student Unrest, University UnrestThe English Gamble with the Future of Higher Education
  • Aaron Porter (bio)

The year 2010 has perhaps been the most significant of any period in the history of English higher education. A year that began with an Independent Review into University Funding and Student Finance chaired by multimillionaire former BP chief executive Lord Browne of Madingley ended with the greatest student unrest for decades, an unprecedented retrenchment of state funding, the abolition of state involvement in the arts, humanities, and social sciences and the trebling of undergraduate fees to £9,000, making England the most expensive place to attend public university in the world.

As president of the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK, I have found this to have been perhaps the toughest period in living memory to represent the views of students to the government, university leaders, and the general public, as disappointment quickly turned to anger at the prospect of such a seismic shift in our higher education landscape.

Much has been made of the need to reduce the government’s deficit, following a deep recession and a huge taxpayer-funded bailout of our banking system and further state investment from Gordon Brown’s Labour Party government to stimulate economic recovery. While all major parties accepted the need to reduce the deficit in the run-up to the general election in May 2010, each set [End Page 241] out plans to do so at different speeds and in different ways. However, the election of a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition, under the leadership of David Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, saw a profound shift in approach to the economy from that of the previous Labour government, as Cameron’s quick and almost excited vow to eliminate the entire deficit within four years meant that the ax began to fall in extravagant fashion across all areas of public expenditure.

This decision to eliminate the deficit following Cameron’s election coincided with a noticeable shift in the focus of Lord Browne too, as he continued to oversee his increasingly fragile “independent” review of university funding. A review that started off looking at how additional investment could be brought in to English universities to ensure that they could remain internationally competitive quickly changed to a money-saving exercise to help the new coalition government eliminate the deficit as quickly as possible, as reports from the review soon emerged that they were looking to save in the region of £3 billion from the higher education budget.

Observers of his review should not have been surprised that Lord Browne would be so adept at overseeing such ruthless cuts, as it was the same Lord Browne who with cut-throat intensity subjected BP to record efficiencies and cost-cutting during his time as chief executive. There was something horribly ironic about how he started to rip out public investment and the very infrastructure from English universities as the calamitous explosion and subsequent oil spill off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico was wreaking havoc off the coast of the United States: a shocking indictment of his legacy at BP. In very different circumstances, many now consider Lord Browne’s legacy to English universities to be similarly destructive to the human and environmental catastrophe we saw in the Gulf of Mexico.

When Lord Browne’s “independent” review finally landed in the public domain in October 2010, many were distraught, but few were surprised that he recommended a £3 billion reduction in the university budget. To put this in context, it represented an 80 percent cut in the overall teaching budget, the abolition of state funding for the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and the largest [End Page 242] single shift in funding in the history of the English university system. To compensate for such a profligate cut to the higher education budget, Browne recommended that the university system be freed to unfettered market forces with the complete freedom to set an unregulated undergraduate tuition fee. He also recommended the further freeing of student numbers, and the decision to only fund “strategically important” subjects such as science, engineering, and mathematics brought a new level of hard utilitarianism, which...


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