For the past few months, the National Union of Students, the Universities and Colleges Union, and others have been campaigning against the Higher Education and Research bill - the government's new proposals for the future of higher education. In a word, the bill aims to ease the entry of private companies into higher education, as well as lifting the cap on fees, and increasing the competition between institutions, departments, and academics. The bill represents the government's wish to accelerate the direction of travel in higher education towards a greater marketisation of the sector.
This week however, students and staff members in higher education across the country will have breathed a sigh of relief as the news came in that the government's proposals for higher education took a serious hit in the House of Lords on Monday. Indeed, peers voted by 263-211 to de-link university fees from the so-called Teaching Excellence Framework. This is a real win for students and staff members and an important set back for the government because the TEF has been proposed as a key mechanism to regulate both the ranking of universities and the rises in fees.
It is worth recapping what the TEF actually is. Following the example of the Research Excellence framework - which has been widely criticised in the sector for increasing work pressure on academics as well as narrowing the scope of critical research - the TEF aims to measure the quality of teaching. However, if this can seem a complicated endeavour in itself, the TEF's focus raises real questions as to the government's actual focus. Indeed, the TEF's main indicators are set to be post-study employment statistics and the National Student Survey, the controversial final-year survey which aims to measure student satisfaction with their university.
This is problematic. Firstly, the TEF's focus on post-study employment, is not only a mind-boggling approach to measuring teaching excellence, it will also give universities a material to avoid enrolling students from backgrounds who face structural discrimination in the job market: women, Black, and working class students. Secondly, by making fee rises, university rankings, and higher pressures on academics depended on TEF scores - and therefore on the outcome of the NSS - the government is effectively attempting to make students responsible for the further dismantling of higher education as we know it.
The response from both the NUS and the UCU to these plans has been unequivocal. Together we have called for the bill to be scrapped and for students to refuse to participate in the NSS. We have marched, lobbied, and for the last few months, students across the country have refused to fill in the NSS. The call was clear: students refuse to be complicit in the raising of fees, the further marketisation of Higher Education, and the increase in disciplining pressures on staff.
Yesterday's announcement is therefore an important step forward for our movement. It is a win for all of you who marched and lobbied. It is a win for all the union activists in NUS and UCU who united and campaigned for a different vision of higher education. It is a win for every single student that is currently taking part in the NSS boycott, as well as for all those who continue to argue that education should be free and accessible to all, that it should be a social good, and that profit seeking should not become its guiding star.
Together, student and staff members have achieved this temporary upset to the government's plans. However, we should remember that the battle is far from over. This should - and can - only be the beginning. MPs can still vote reinstate the link between TEF and fees when the bill is taken back to parliament. Either way TEF is still on the table. It is still a tool in the hands of managers to increase pressure on our tutors and lecturers. It is still a ranking mechanism that claims to measure teaching excellence by focussing on post-study employment statistics. It is therefore still a mechanism that will disproportionally hit female students and students from Black and working class backgrounds.
This tactical victory should give us all energy and strength to redouble our efforts and embolden us to push forward towards a truly free, liberated and accessible education for all.
Our government's policy in education remains one that aims to sell it off to the highest bidder. My union's vision, as I believe that of the majority of people in the UK, is that education should remain a right, to be enjoyed by all, at any time in life. Such a vision is one worth fighting for, and one which we will continue to put forward, with others, until it is achieved.
As always, the struggle continues!