Memorandum from UNISON (HE 69)
UNISON is committed to an education system for
all. It sees higher education as an essential part of a comprehensive
system; a central strand in social and economic progress. As such,
UNISON supports expansion of the sector and increased opportunities
for all. Universities and colleges are funded publicly. They are
part of our national heritage and not the property of a privileged
The government's commitment to increased participation
rates is welcome. But UNISON must express reservations about how
this will be achieved and how quality will be protected.
It is difficult to see how higher education
can expand without significant investment. Although some institutions
claim to be less dependent on public money because of their ability
to attract contracts, many of those contracts emanate from public
The additional £100 million for 2001-02,
which was announced in the comprehensive spending review 2000,
is to be allocated in a less than satisfactory way. It is a good
thing that £50 million has been earmarked for extra pay.
It is less good that the recipients will be the most senior academics.
Although it may be seen as an investment to
attract more private money, it will have little impact on the
quality of student learning and experience.
The Bett review of higher education pay and
conditions highlighted the levels of low pay across higher education.
It indicated that extra funding was needed to update the industrial
relations system and pay levels in the sector.
Higher education expansion will depend on the
entire staff team who will need to be motivated by appropriate
reward and acknowledgement.
UNISON has consistently warned that the introduction
of tuition fees would have a negative impact upon access to higher
education. It seems common sense that a large burden of debt and
the need for money up front will deter students with little or
no parental support.
If students drop out of courses in large numbers,
as they do in other self-financing systems, they are a greater
strain on the public purse, while achieving nothing.
Ideally, UNISON would like to see student maintenance
state funded to achieve equality of access. But it accepts the
financial imperatives and that students may need to pay back into
the system via post-graduate taxation.
The Dearing report that recommended tuition
fees did not suggest the abolition of maintenance grants. The
government should give serious consideration to the re-introduction
of financial support for those most in need.
Needless to say, UNISON is bitterly opposed
to top-up fees which will widen the class divide in higher education.
UNISON is pleased to see funding directed towards
institutions which determine to attract students from lower socio-economic
groups. But these schemes should not be tokenistic or a substitute
for more important measures that seek to tackle the worse excesses
of the class system.
UNISON does not believe that the government
and higher education professionals can tackle access challenges
in isolation from the rest of the education system. There is a
class of pupils who have started to fail before they begin. The
wider questions of poverty, disadvantage and discrimination have
to be answered to inform the debate.
Lifelong learning is a worthy and principled
concept. UNISON commits significant resources to assisting members
on return to learn programmes. But it would not like to see further
stratification in a system where full-time study is the preserve
of the financially able and others have mix and match part-time
UNISON represents a wide range of staff performing
essential tasks in higher education. Their recruitment and retention
is vital to the expansion of the sector and they must be rewarded
at least as much as comparable workers in other sectors.
Higher education should be a mass system, where
fees and finance are not a deterrent to poorer students.
Universities and Colleges should be part of
an integrated public education system. To improve access to it,
social and economic differences between children should be ameliorated
at an earlier stage.
Challenging elitism in education is a fundamental
step in modernising our social fabric. UNISON is pleased to support
government initiatives on widening access, but urges it to consider
the major barriers to participation caused by the experience of
poverty, disadvantage and low expectations.