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Liam Burns

Liam Burns
Liam Burns is the President of the National Union of Students (NUS).

HE Bill – dropped or delayed?

As many of you already know, around 11.30pm last night the HE twittersphere went into overdrive over news that the Coalition Government had shelved its plans to bring forward an HE Bill.  The Telegraph reported the headline “American-backed private universities plan dropped”

For those of you that follow me (@nus_liam) on twitter, you will know that I was quick to point out that the Government dropping the HE Bill is not necessarily a good thing, highlighting that the reforms can continue without scrutiny or opportunity to defeat.  Those of you who have, like me, being paying close attention to this debate, will know that many of the most damaging of changes to HE that are taking place don’t need any legislation and would never have been a feature of the long awaited Bill. 

I read with interest the first ‘blog’ on the issue from Mark Leach, the Senior Policy Adviser from the University Alliance and found myself agreeing with many of his points.  My initial reaction is that whilst the news has been welcomed in parts of the sector, there is no reason for us to celebrate. People seem to be viewing it either as a u-turn on policy direction after months of public criticism, protests and occupations, or as a sign that the Minister has heard the calls from the sector for stability until we know the impact of £9k fees. I believe that it’s neither.

There are many reasons for us not to celebrate and as you all know, before this announcement I circulated a range of ideas and policy suggestions to you for consultation.  I found your feedback invaluable in shaping both the policy objectives and the tactics for the term ahead.  My initial thoughts are that the work done in that consultation still stands, the issues remain the same, and our demands have essentially not shifted, they just perhaps need to be refocused given the lack of legislation.  So, I have this morning reflected on where we were about to go, considered where I think our policy demands are, based on our earlier discussions, and adapted our proposed activities to reflect the new circumstances. 

So here they are, and here is what I think we need to do about them, Why the fight to stop the Government from selling off our education goes on:

Students don’t have enough power | Even without legislation, the Government’s funding changes are making HE more unstable and diverse, and students need more power to hold their providers to account. The Government assumes that students achieve power solely via “consumer choice”- but that power is illusory and doesn’t help if things go wrong.

Together, we will campaign for:

  • a statutory provision of a minimum number of student governors in all providers;
  • student charters legally required and their approval subject to a ballot of all registered students;
  • the power for students to trigger QAA reviews and for compliance with OIA rulings to be compulsory.

Our education is being sold for profit | The Government might have temporarily shelved plans to give Degree Awarding Powers to private universities, but their march goes on; with degrees awarded by existing bodies, David Willets can and will give access to the public student loan system to private providers. HE run for profit is inherently more risky in terms of quality and delivery than non-profit provision - and now won’t even face parliamentary scrutiny.

Together, we will campaign for:

  • An end to places in the private sector being publically funded by the student loans system
  • A proper system of regulation for private providers operating in the UK

Hidden costs and charges still remain | Our research indicates that students up and down the country are faced with charges and costs that were not clear at the point of application. Hidden costs harm students by putting them into hardship, commercial debt or undermining their performance.   

Together, we will campaign for:

  • Any compulsory or essential charges outside of the main fee to be banned;
  • HEFCE or other body to regulate other charges made to students.

Every student deserves a strong students‘ union | Across the UK some unions remain dangerously under supported and underfunded. And in many of Willets’ new providers that will be encouraged in through the back door, there isn’t even a students’ union at all.

Together, we will campaign for:

  • Regulation on the funding and support of student representation across HEIs;
  • Statutory provision of a students’ union in any HEI granted access to the student funding system.

The future of student loans looks risky | Although the repayment conditions right now look benign, right now there is no protection against a future government changing conditions for loan repayment. The Government should be legislating now to prevent a future generation from being plunged further into debt. In the US, student loans are being written off to generate economic stimulus.

Together, we will campaign for:

  • Key Income Contingent Repayments Terms & Conditions be specified in statute;
  • Priority on the 30yr write-off protection;
  • Targeted student loan write off to generate economic stimulus.

No to asset stripping | Most capital assets in HE sector have been bought with public money; but legal firms, private providers and sector sharks are circling to find ways to get their hands on these valuable assets. The government should be blocking their sale, in the public interest.

Together, we will campaign for:

  • requiring referral of significant changes in corporate form by any body regulated by HEFCE to the Charity Commission;
  • preventing any HEI from disposing of any assets valued at more than £5m.

Students need protection from market failure | Even without legislation the Government will be pressing for increased competition, and the pressures of a more market based system imply that institutions may be much more likely to collapse- students have to be protected if that happens.    

Together, we will campaign for:

  • Statutory insurance scheme to repay fees to students whose institution collapses;
  • Funding and co-ordination support to run schemes formally recognising accredited prior learning;
  • Guaranteed additional student numbers for people affected by a provider collapse.

Students need bursaries, not con-trick fee waivers | Students need money in their pockets now, and low value fee waivers are unlikely to be realised except for high earning graduates. If there are fee waivers, they need to count. The Government’s National Scholarship Programme is nothing short of a disgrace and even without legislation, desperately needs reform.      

Together, we will campaign for:

  • Access agreement arrangements to focus on student financial support;
  • OFFA required not to approve access agreements involving fee waivers of less than 50% of fee;
  • Students’ union sign-off on access agreements before OFFA makes a decision.

Postgraduate education needs fair access and funding |  PG education was ignored by the Browne review & the government: but it is becoming more important than ever, with fees rising and no state assistance, and something must be done.    

Together, we will campaign for:

  • Access to student support extended to meet PGT support priorities.

Access to HE remains unequal | Ministers promised that the system would improve access to selective institutions; already evidence indicates that the opposite is true.

Together, we will campaign for:

  • An independent review if the system fails;   
  • Promise for a Royal Commission into higher education unless three key, pre-defined access indicators have not improved in sample institutions by January 1st 2015.

So – What’s Next?

Hidden Costs

During the week of the 20th February we will be launching a toolkit and a range of resources on Hidden Costs to enable you to win locally on this issue.  Whilst nationally we will continue to raise this as an important information issue, we know that the immediate power to fix this lies in your institution, so we will be supporting you with resources and advice on making this a prominent local issue. 

Lobby of Parliament

It is clear that the Minister needs to be scrutinised.  Many of your MPs will not understand what is happening to the same level that you do - they are busy people - and so together we need to educate MPs about all the issues, so that they can ask questions of the Minister about the backdoor changes. So, on Wednesday 7th March 2011 we shall be holding a National Lobby of Parliament to facilitate you to raise your concerns and put pressure on your MP to ensure that David Willetts be accountable for his changes.

Week of Action

From the 12th March to the 16th March NUS is calling for a Week of Action on university campuses across England, to make it clear to university management that students will not stand idly by as their education is diminished and the changes are quietly implemented by them without any Parliamentary mandate. This will include students’ unions developing a range of local actions on campusses, tied in with a range of online campaigning actions developed by NUS nationally.

National Walk-Out

We will call for a National Walk-Out on campusses this term. Students’ unions will be able to develop a range of actions that their students want to take, but the aim is clear: let’s clear out the lecture theatres, the seminar rooms, the ITC suites and the Libraries and demonstrate clearly that without students, Universities are just empty buildings. Let’s work hard together to show that students care and make the National Walk-Out count.

These actions are just the start of our activity this term. Scrapping the Bill signals a new, more sneaky way of doing business from the coalition Government, and as a movement we need to find new and creative ways to apply pressure and win for students in return.

What is clear is whether the Bill has been dropped or delayed, that we still need to stand up for students, make clear our demands and show the Government, the sector and our Vice Chancellors and Principles that we won’t put with backdoor changes any more than we would put up with legislative ones.

I will be in touch with more details about the Lobby, Week of Action and National Walk-Out. In the meantime, if you have any feedback, comments or questions – as ever just email, text or call.

Cheers

Liam

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