The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Another education is possible: The UCU Congress 2017!

The annual Congress of the University and College Union (UCU) met in Brighton from 26 to 29 May to assess the situation of Further and Higher Education in the UK. Since 2010 and the first Conservative-led government, Further and Higher Education have come under significant pressure. Against the background of the global financial crisis, salaries have fallen in real terms, the workforce has become increasingly casualised, moves towards privatisation have been facilitated and tuition fees have been increased to £9000 per year. And yet, the Labour Party manifesto for the general elections on 8 June 2017 offers a clear alternative. In this blog post, I will reflect on this possibility against the background of discussions at the UCU Congress.

Higher Education under attack

The increase in tuition fees to £9000 a year combined with the removal of the cap on student recruitment by universities has transformed Higher Education into a market. For students, this implies record levels of personal debt, when they leave University. Higher Education is being transformed into a commodity for sale, which can be accessed by those, who can afford to pay for it.

For staff members, the transformation of Higher Education into a market has led to an increasing hierarchisation of decision-making hand in hand with a general de-professionalisation. Moreover, because of the ever fiercer competition between universities for students, we have seen a broad attack on employment. The decision by Manchester Metropolitan University to close its Crewe campus resulting in 160 academic and many more support staff redundancies and the decision by Manchester University to make 171 staff members redundant, while creating more than 100 less well-paid junior academic posts, are only the most brutal expressions of general developments, which see universities re-position themselves on this competitive market.

Photo by @UCU

The Labour Party Manifesto - Defending public education

In this situation, the Labour Party Manifesto offers a real alternative. The proposals to scrap tuition fees as early as autumn 2017, to create a unified national education service for England that is free at the point of use, to reintroduce maintenance grants and restore the education maintenance allowance for 16 to 18 year olds from lower and middle income backgrounds, constitute a way towards a different future. They offer the opportunity to roll back this process of marketization and re-establish a situation, in which Further and Higher Education are a public good, not a commodity.

Congress delegates pointed again and again to the importance of a Labour victory on 8 June for the preservation of education as a public good. UCU is not officially affiliated to any political party. Nevertheless, at the Brighton Congress, a large majority of delegates took the decision to call for a vote for Labour in the forthcoming elections.

As colleagues at the UCU Congress pointed out correctly, however, whatever the outcome in the general elections, it will not be business as usual on 9 June. If the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn win, and this is increasingly becoming a concrete possibility, there will be many attempts to destabilise his government. ‘The only power that will be able to deal with the full onslaught from the press and by all the powers of the state that will be unleashed against his government is a mass movement that is capable of mobilising millions to defend it’ (Lawrence and Morelli, 2017: 4). On the other hand, if Corbyn and the Labour Party lose, the attacks on education will become even more brutal and collective action of resistance more urgent. Is UCU prepared for this?

Some argue that the most important way forward is concentrating on victories in local level struggles. And yet, is it possible to defend education by focusing purely on the local level? Whatever the victories gained at the local level, it is national policies such as the recent White Paper on Higher Education, which establish the structures within which local struggles take place. There is no alternative to a well-developed national industrial action strategy.


Lawrence, Liz and Carlo Morelli (2017) ‘The 2017 General Election: Vote Corbyn but build the movement’, Another education is possible, No.9 (Spring 2017). 

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

1 June 2017

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