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Willett’s privatisation bill rolled into ditch – for now

The government has dropped controversial proposals to make it easier for private businesses to set up universities, after several months of protest by students.

The White Paper drawn up last year was to lessen the criteria for the track record investors would have to demonstrate before setting up a new institution.

Liberal Democrats in the coalition were said to be unhappy with implementing another attack on public education after seeing their approval rating plummet to almost nothing after supporting the rise to £9,000 tuition fees last year.
It is also thought that David Cameron preferred to deal with other unpopular policies first, such as the Health and Welfare legislation currently being debated.

But delaying the bill does not stop all private companies setting up degree-awarding bodies. BPP, which runs some business related courses was positive about the news, stating that it would boost the power of those companies who can already award qualifications. Education Investor website said it would increase the “market value” of these companies.

A bodged privatisation?

When the cap on fees was raised to £9,000 last year, and universities were asked to try and compete for the brightest students, it is likely David Willetts hoped for a return to a two-tier system through ‘market differentiation’.

New institutions would charge less fees, and offer lower quality and vocation-based training whilst Russell Group universities would boost income to better compete for international students and a place on the world market. Or so he thought.

But almost every university opted to charge the top fees, and Willetts hoped that private business, with the incentive of a looser quality threshold, would offer cheaper education.

Some universities, (Salford Uni for example), whilst adopting a market ethos a long time ago, opposed the plans, not wanting to have to deal with further competitors on price.

So it seems that in the end, Willett’s plans have alienated students, lecturers, civil servants – even Lib Dems, and education managers! Not bad for a few months’ work!

Where now?

Those opposed to the privatisation of education need to stay wary, not just of the opening of new private universities, but also the increasingly privatised nature of existing institutions. NUS President Liam Burns has warned that the government’s delay of the bill does not stop further privatisation through stealth.

But as well as staying vigilant, students can spread the message to workers in the public sector that the government is by no means invincible and that bold campaigns of protest and direct action can work.

The UCU strike on 1st March is a huge opportunity to link workers together with youth and students who are all suffering from the dangers of privatisation, unemployment and lower pay conditions. Let’s march together on March the 1st!

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