Students demonstrate against controversial Higher Education and Research Bill in Parliament Square

Protesters demand a ‘free, liberated higher education system which values education as a social good’

 

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The Independent Online

Protesters are descending on Parliament Square to demonstrate against the second reading of the controversial Higher Education and Research Bill which has been labelled “dangerous” by the National Union of Students (NUS).

Education activists, part of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) group which is organising the action on Tuesday, has called the Bill “maybe the worst set of marketising reforms in the history of British university education.”

The Bill is the first of its kind for a decade, and includes some of the biggest higher education (HE) reforms in recent years. Published by the Government in May - after being set out in the Queen’s Speech - it will enact the reforms in the recent white paper, including the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Students and the wider HE community have been arguing against proposals to link TEF with an increase in tuition fees, a move which caused mass outrage with the sector disputing that students are already being saddled with too much debt, even more than their anglophone counterparts.

Calling on students, officers, education workers, and activists from across the country to join the emergency protest outside Parliament, NCAFC said: “This Bill will usher in a fully marketised HE system, one where teaching will be measured on meaningless market metrics that will be used to raise fees even further, where students will be seen as nothing more than consumers, where universities will be forced to battle one another in a chaotic education market, and where the Government will drive public universities to go bust, then help for-profit companies take their place.”

NCAFC has also appealed on eligible voters to support Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn because he is “the only candidate with a consistent record of fighting for free education.”

The University and College Union (UCU) has also called on the Government to scrap the Bill now that Prime Minister Theresa May has moved the universities and skills brief from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to the Department for Education.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “The extraordinary events of the last three weeks mean it is quite absurd to believe domestic politics can simply carry on regardless. The Bill was conceived in a pre-Brexit world and, whatever its merits or otherwise, its significance for HE is dwarfed by the implications of the UK leaving the EU. Now the universities and skills brief has been moved into a different government department, it is time to put the Bill to one side.”

NUS has also said students are “seriously worried” about the Bill, and NUS vice president for HE, Sorana Vieru, said: “Given the Bill outlines some of the most significant reforms to HE in over a decade, it is a crucial opportunity to halt such changes, especially amid an uncertain political climate caused by a restructure and Brexit negotiations.

We believe it is not in students’ interests to have to pay more to access excellent teaching, it is not in students’ interests to have a system based on competition, not collaboration, and it is for students to define their own interests and to have a seat at the decision-making tables.”

An NUS spokesperson also told the Independent: “NUS has profound concerns with the Bill which represents the wrong reforms at the worst possible time. We join with parliamentarians and many of those in the education sector in calling for the Government to pause and take stock of what the events of recent weeks mean for HE, and to think again.”

The Government, however, has insisted the new legislation will give more young people the opportunity to access “high-quality university education” and “boost life chances and opportunity for all.” Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, said: “Our universities are engines of economic growth and social mobility, but if we are to remain competitive and ensure a high-quality education remains open to all, we cannot stand still.

“Making it easier for high-quality challenger institutions to start offering their own degrees will help drive up teaching quality, boost the economy, and extend aspiration and life chances for students from all backgrounds.”

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