Student Distribution Recap and Update

This post was by Bijan Parsia with lots of corrections and feedback by various UCUCommons members.

As #UCURising progresses, I’ve seen several people raise the critical issue of student distribution in HE. This is particularly important in the pay and conditions dispute, because, for example, student-starved programmes face elimination, while other institutions turn to exploited casual staff to teach ‘surprise’ admissions growth. It would be intolerable if members who fought so hard with us to win victories lost their jobs, or were locked in casualised ‘careers’ as a result.

On the flip side, the combination of fixed home student income and broken student distribution is being used by UCEA to avoid moving toward our position on pay and conditions.

(In both cases, there are reasons to be suspicious about these claims.)

Student distribution has traditionally, though not solely, been a Government issue. There is a lot of contention within and without the union about how to handle student distribution issues (and there’s a reason I say “student distribution issues” and not “student number controls” or “student caps”).

I want to recap some of the stuff we’ve done in UCU Commons toward this issue, point to some current work led by others, and share some thoughts about next steps.

Past

I’m not the first person to propose that our union take a strong position on this issue. In early 2020 David Harvie, Mark Pendleton (both, like me, now members of UCU Commons) and Leon Rocha (now a UCU employee) introduced a motion to NEC. It was ordered to the end of the agenda by the chair and so wasn’t discussed. Three of four attempts resulted in the motion falling off the agenda for time. The last attempt was voted on but there was a 50-50 split, so the motion fell.

My first attempt to move the needle on this was with one of my early motions that…didn’t go well. It skirted being out of order (because we couldn’t change the dispute letter) and it got a lot of strong push back (my first time being accused of being undemocratic):

2. Student Distribution and the 4 Fights

HEC notes:

  • Student distribution across universities has become increasingly distorted
  • Some institutions face overwhelming waves of students while some are starved
  • Numbers swing wildly from year to year inhibiting planning

HEC also notes:

  • Too many students increases workload unsustainably
  • Too few students drives department closures and redundancies, as well as second class secondments from student-starved institutions to student-glutted ones
  • Uncertainty about numbers increases casualisation as universities try to hedge against chaos
  • The student learning experience is seriously damaged across the board

HEC also notes that the student distribution problem is acute and offers a strong point of solidarity between pre-92s and post-92s as well between as staff and students.

HEC resolves to pursue student distribution reform as part of the 4 Fights.

I thought I had crafted it carefully, but…it’s hard to craft good motions! Esp on contentious subjects. I had written a TL;DR about the topic (which got me my first Twitter accusation of libel for stuff in the appendix). The TL;DR is from my perspective, but it tries to present the full debate reasonably neutrally. The appendix is not a bad start for jumping into the literature, though it’s grown since then.

In May 2022, Ruth Holliday decided that her swan song on HEC would be One More Attempt at getting something through HEC on student distribution. We took our various experiences with how prior motions failed and tried to write the motion so it was effective yet unobjectionable. We also did our first experiment in grassroots lobbying HEC. This was successfully passed! You can read all about it in the posts Chaotic Recruitment, Student Distribution, and the Four Fights and We’re Fighting The Chaos. The upshot is that there is work being done on this, but there’s a lot going on at UCU and staff resources are limited. At the end of the second post I wrote:

UCU Commons will be organizing an open-to-all collaboration on this issue to feed info, research design, and strategy insight in to UCU staff. Many of us are academics, part of what we do, what we train to do, is study problems and conduct research. Let’s put our collective skills to use and crack this problem, it truly affects us all

I’m afraid I was a little optimistic about our capacity to jump on this quickly. But others have taken up the task.

Present

Will Pooley is organising a group of UCU members to work on this issue. You can sign up via this form. I and other UCUCommoners, are involved, but this isn’t a “UCUCommons” thing or issue. The UCUCommons current NEC/HEC reps and candidates certainly support working on fixing this problem. It’s going to be a heavy lift so the more people organising around this topic the better.

Future

First, we are the union. If you care about this issue and want the union to do something, there really is no other option than to work though our democratic mechanisms and through organising.

A proper solution may need a change in Government.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t lay groundwork now. And we can certainly pressure UCEA to get on board. We should also have proposals that are shovel ready and have some degree of consensus to push on a new Government.

There are maybe things we can do without a change in Government. It will take some creativity and careful analysis.

We still need to deal with UCU internal processes and politics. In order to get discussion of student distribution into the pay and conditions dispute negotiations, we probably need to pass a sector conference motion at Congress in May 2023. This would be a big effort, including getting a motion in (from a branch or from HEC), but the ground game is already running. It may also mean we need to elect sympathetic negotiators with the right mix of expertise. Finally, talking to incoming NEC candidates in HE about this issue is a good way to get it on their radar.

A big question is the potential positive and negative effects on students and whether we should couple sensible distribution with eliminating fees, as some would prefer. I think there’s an argument that even with fees, sensible distribution benefits students overall. But it is not going to feel that way to a student who doesn’t get their first choice.

A note

I see many people talk about the lifting of student number controls as part of marketisation or free marketisation of HE. I don’t think that’s correct.

Universities are not free to set their own tuition, thus cannot differentiate on price or use price to regulate numbers. Tuition is fixed by the Government and funded by Government-backed loans! In the US system, tuition generally isn’t fixed but it is also hugely funded by Government-backed loans. There, tuition rises well above inflation. Here, (home) tuition is eroded by inflation. In both cases, “consumer choice” isn’t particularly meaningful in controlling costs. In both cases, workers are squeezed!

Post-admission qualifications and Government-run qualification exams are also a big market-distorting. The constant messing with visa regimes, the Hostile Environment, and general attacks on overseas recruitment are another big Governmental anti-market intervention. In general, UKHE operates as a very command economy with some market features. On the plus side, this reduces tuition inflation and mitigates (a tiny bit) some of the fee negatives. On the flip side, many of the bad effects we see aren’t accidents, but intended or at least welcomed.

Now, of course, like healthcare, core education generally doesn’t work as a market good, so moving back to a straight societal investment model should be the overall imperative. But we also should recognise chaotic student distribution is part of a programme by the Government which includes “free speech/academic freedom” which are nothing of the sort, denigration and de-subsidisation of the arts and humanities, and various broken notions of “quality”.

The Tories are doing many things to try to shrink the sector and aren’t shy about it. We are not dealing with the effects of a free market here, but rather an antagonistic state intervention across UKHE. Rationalising student distribution is a critical part of saving our sector.

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