Tristan Learoyd: 'The changes to funding go against all that universities are about'

Learoyd is one of the country's highest-flying academics. But he's leaving education for ever in protest at the changes to funding. He tells Richard Garner why

By any standards, Tristan Learoyd is one of the country's highest-flying academics. He became the youngest person in history to be elected to the English Pharmacy Board towards the tail end of last year. And, by the age of 29, he has had more than 20 peer-reviewed articles on pharmaceutical research published in learned academic journals.

Soon, though, he will be lost to the university world for good as a result of quitting in protest at the planned rises in tuition fees and the Government's changes to the way universities are funded. In his letter of resignation to the University of Sunderland – where he is employed as senior lecturer in pharmacy – he says: "I refuse to teach where it will be the content of somebody's wallet – not the content of their character – that will determine academic success."

Dr Learoyd was born and brought up in a working-class community in Teesside and was in the first generation in his immediate family to go to university. "Tuition fees didn't put me off then – it was £1,000 a year, not the problem you've got now," he said. "Now, there could be a £9,000-a-year price tag on some courses. If I had to make the same decision again – no, I couldn't go. You'd end up with debts of £36,000 by the end of it."

Dr Learoyd believes the Government's higher-education reforms have subtly changed the relationship between lecturers, their students and the universities. "The student arrives at university expecting a degree because they've paid for it," he said. "The lecturer is faced with a target of getting 90 per cent of students through their exams set by the institution and they feel they've got to meet it."

His frustration with the changes come through starkly in that resignation letter: "With regards to promotion, any lecturer who aligns themselves to the market principles or the leadership of an institution receives the best working conditions and promotion," he says. "This goes against the principles of what a university is supposed to represent. It is no longer skill, talent or qualifications that are recognised – it is compliance."

Dr Learoyd acknowledges that he is in a better position to make what he calls a "principled stand" against the changes than others, as he is a single man. He plans to move back in with his parents when he leaves the university for the last time next month. "Some of my fellow academics, I am sure, would like to do likewise, but they have families to support," he says. "A university education should emancipate the individual... With the expansion of neoliberal market principles and the resultant privatisation of universities, lecturers have become nothing but workers labouring to produce a product in competition with other institutions."

His decision comes as protests over the rise in tuition fees begin to hot up again after a Christmas lull. There were two marches over the weekend – in Manchester and London – protesting the proposals. Twenty people were arrested as a result of clashes during the demonstrations.

There is also growing evidence that a substantial number of universities are ready to go for the maximum option of £9,000 a year if allowed, though most are officially keeping their cards close to their chests until after they have more details of the regulatory regime for going above the £6,000-a-year minimum.

Aaron Porter, the President of the National Union of Students, said discussions he had had with universities led him to believe that around seven out of 10 would go for the maximum charge. John Denham, Labour's spokesman on Business, Innovation and Skills, also said many of the universities he had spoken to had indicated they wanted to go for the full £9,000.

He has written to the Office for Fair Access (Offa), the regulator, asking for guidance on how it will approach requests from universities to charge above the floor figure. He believes it is significant that, while Universities minister David Willetts told MPs in the House of Commons that universities would be able to charge a higher figure only in "exceptional circumstances", this phrase was left out of draft guidance sent to Sir Martin Harris, head of Offa, outlining how it should proceed.

"Dr Learoyd came into university teaching thinking that his work would give ordinary people better life chances, and it is very sad that he has now reached the conclusion that universities will no longer do that," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. "He has clearly made a fantastic contribution and will be a great loss to his students and colleagues."

Under the Government's plans, fees will rise to between £6,000 and £9,000 a year from September next year. At present, they are £3,240 a year. As a result of public spending cuts, 80 per cent of the teaching budget will be slashed, with government support available only for science, maths, engineering, technology, and some language courses.

Dr Learoyd's resignation – he is now planning to train as a lawyer – comes as student protests over the planned rises are set to resume, with two demonstrations planned at the end of next week. Some of his colleagues are hoping his stance will provoke just as much heart-searching at the centre of power as the actions of those who take to the streets, if not more.

Tuition fees: the repercussions

Tristan Learoyd is not the only person facing a rethink about his future as a result of the plans to raise tuition fees.

Aaron Porter, the President of the National Union of Students, is facing an increasingly bitter battle to hold on to his job as a result of condemning violence at the fees protests and, his opponents claim, failing to give enough support to student sit-ins and occupations. He is standing for a second term in office this year and is expected to be opposed by at least two student activists from the further-left. He had to have a police escort at the weekend demonstration in Manchester, where he was heckled and abused.

Some students have had their career plans halted abruptly – notably Edward Woollard, a student at Brockenhurst sixth-form College in the New Forest, who was jailed for 32 months after throwing a fire extinguisher off the roof of the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank during the first demonstration.

Further trials are due to start later this month, including that of Charlie Gilmour, stepson of the Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who was charged with criminal disorder and the theft of a mannequin leg from Topshop. He will appear at City of Westminster Magistrates' Court next week.

The Liberal Democrats party hasseen its share of the vote plummet in recent opinion polls – though the latest shows a rise of two percentage points to 13 per cent. That is still way behind their election support.

Some – particularly those representing university constituencies – are facing students seeking to use planned "right to recall" legislation – aimed at ousting MPs guilty of malpractice – to unseat them if they fail to live up to their election pledge to vote against fee rises.

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