In the academic year of 2011/12 the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University, Nigel Thrift, was awarded a pay increase of £42,000. He now receives a pay packet of £316,000 – earning over twenty-two times more than the lowest paid worker at this university (£14,202).
This is not unusual. Vice-Chancellors of the country’s most selective universities have received similar pay increases. These come at a time of continuing economic crisis, rising youth unemployment and falling intake of students from less-privileged backgrounds. This is symptomatic of widening social inequality and a mass transfer of wealth from poor to rich, public to private.
Widening inequality within higher education is driven by the marketization and privatization of universities. Institutions that were once for the public good are now being turned over to private, profit-driven interests. This is deliberately advanced by government policy on higher education. Our university system was once acknowledged as one of the best in the world. This is now being dismantled.
Unlike their Vice-Chancellors, university staff members have experienced a real wage pay cut. Made in the name of ‘growth’ and ‘efficiency’, these cuts go hand in hand with longer hours, less money and insecure contracts for postgraduate and junior staff members. This puts enormous pressure on staff and visibly reduces teaching standards, forcing us to ask: efficient at what?
At the same time, students are forced to take on the burden of financing higher education. While fees climb to £9,000 a year, bursaries are either cancelled or transferred to ‘fee waivers’; meanwhile, in universities like Warwick, maintenance costs are driven up by the construction of ever-more expensive accommodation. The vast post-university debt (£43,500) now facing less privileged students whose families cannot afford to pay up-front makes university education seem both risky and undesirable for many. This process is changing the perception of higher education from a public good to a private investment, from a communal right to an individual privilege, accessible only by the few, as demonstrated by falling applications from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The widening gap in pay between senior managers and frontline staff, and the debt forced on students, means that the university now reproduces social inequalities rather than contesting them. This undermines the university’s democratic function as a space in which free thought, debate and critical inquiry is fostered in order to give people the tools to challenge social hierarchies and play an active role in the public sphere.
Our opposition to the rising salary of the Vice-Chancellor speaks to a deeper opposition to the continuing marketization and privatization of higher education. The problems at Warwick University are problems for the entire university system under market logic. The management of this university is failing to make the case for the protection and promotion of the public university, so we must do it. The government’s radical restructuring of higher education has crept up on us, and we must act now if we are to resist – before it’s too late.
We contest these reforms to our university, however the voice of the student body has been reduced to customer feedback and merely tokenistic representation in the governance of this university. There is currently no space for dialogue over the future of our own university. We are occupying this council chamber in order to open that space, to start that dialogue and to make our voices heard. If we are to halt this government’s assault on the university we must make ourselves heard TOGETHER and begin to work towards an alternative.