‘Business Bath’: the marketisation of our University?

University of Bath - University of Bath
The University of Bath is well-known for student satisfaction

On a typically dreary day in early February a small gathering of party-hat wearing, drum-beating activists gathered outside the library to celebrate the University of Bath’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell. Standing beneath the custard-coloured ‘Number One for Student Satisfaction’ banner embellished on the building, the students handed out leaflets announcing that, in the previous month of January alone, the Vice-Chancellor had received £33,000 in pay.

The salary of Professor Dame Breakwell has been the rallying cry for a number of protests groups this year. The revelation that, between 2010 and 2014, her pay package increased by 9.5% annually to reach £395,000 has been seen as endemic of a university reaping the benefits of an increasingly commercialised higher educational system.

The marketisation of higher education does not, inevitably, begin in Bath. Rather in Westminster seventeen years ago, when Labour introduced £1,000 tuition fees after fierce internal disputes. Within a matter of years this figure increased to £3,000 before infamously peaking at its current levels of £9,000 in 2010. Students it appeared were no longer benefactors of higher education, but rather customers temporarily subsidised through a series of loans.

In that aspect, the University of Bath has always been a business; money has always come from somewhere, but it is simply the source of funding which has changed. The arrangement was simple: the higher the tuition fees raised from the individual student, the less money handed out by the taxpayer raised Funding Council. Within months of the £9,000 tuition fees cap Bath had announced that all courses would pay the higher bracket. In 2009, the University was receiving £50 million and £60 million from tuition fees and the Funding Council alike; in 2014 this was £106 million and £41 million respectively.

It is within this paradigm shift that universities have become profitable businesses in themselves, albeit ones with ‘charitable status’ and no shareholders to respond to. Last year, the University brought in £222 million in total from income with a record £16.9 million in surplus, meaning the University can invest in new buildings and ensure economic stability for future projects. In the same time, Bath’s national recognition has increased rapidly, peaking as the third ranked university in 2012, according The Sunday Times.

Behind much of this has been Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell who, for better or for worse, has played the game of the new marketised university. “When it comes down to it,” she told Bath Life last year, “success in a university depends on the same factors as in any business.” And it is a competitive business too: last year £28 billion came into the higher education sector, making it one of the country’s largest industries.

Students gathering to ‘celebrate’ the Vice Chancellor’s pay rise

And what is Bath’s business plan? Firstly, don’t diversify. Like America’s MIT, Bath specialises in the sciences, meaning the University can focus and advertise what it excels in. Secondly, it is about expanding the pool of applicants, with particular emphasis reaching out to international students – who pay fees of up to £18,000 – with Bath ranking 18th nationally for intake of foreign students. Last year, Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell travelled to Singapore, South Korea and China (as well as India on a Government-sponsored trip) to raise the brand recognition of Bath and, more recently, introduced a Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Internationalisation, Professor Colin Grant.

Finally, it’s about focusing on ‘student satisfaction’. The customer is always right, something which is increasingly reflected in ‘league tables’. The nationally-renowned Sports Training Village, state-of-the-art £10 million Arts and Management Building and an ever-increasing emphasis on providing customers with exceptional teaching are all parts of this drive. And the happier the students are, the better we do, meaning more (usually better) applicants. Last year, for every placed offered at Bath, there was seven applicants.

Under the tenure of Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, the University of Bath has excelled under the new rules of play. Students seem to be enjoying their experience more, the University is more financially stable and Bath as a whole is receiving greater national and international acclaim.

But not everything is rosy believes Hedley Bashforth, a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences and the University of Bath University and Colleges Union (UCU) Secretary, a union which actively campaigns against tuition fees and commercialisation of university. “My thought with Bath,” he tells me “is that it has been very aggressive in the welcome it has given to those kind of changes and hasn’t, like a lot of other universities, thought about the negative consequences particularly in regards to student debt.”

When asked by bathimpact if universities are indeed facing marketisation, and whether it is necessarily a bad thing, the Vice-Chancellor said: “We have welcomed the opportunity to grow in response to the increasing numbers of students who want to come to Bath whilst continuing to improve the quality of both our research and teaching. Higher education is a competitive global business and we work hard to ensure our position amongst the elite institutions.”

With the cost of universities now pushed onto students, those paying £9,000 can now expect to leave university with debts of up to £44,015, not including casual debt often arranged with family. Whilst Conservative Universities and Science Minister Greg Clark has compared the debt repayment system to the daily equivalent of a “posh coffee”, the increase in debts and cost of living has been linked with depression and stress.

The impact of burgeoning debts on social mobility, however, is yet to be fully assessed. Whilst a report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission revealed that between 2003 and 2011, the percentage of state-educated students at Russell Group universities feel, new information from the University and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) revealed that the entry rate has actually increased every year since 2011. Nationally, Bath is the only university to have seen year-on-year increase in applications since the introduction of the higher fee bracket and, with the increased income (including Alumni donations), will see over £4 million of undergraduate scholarships and bursaries.

infoforimpactonlineBut student debt is still an issue which our generation has to deal with and Mr. Bashforth’s assertion that the University has done little to challenge the issues epitomises for many that the University of Bath has gleefully taken on the new sources of revenue, creating a business model where, in the eyes of many, it isn’t warranted.

Corperate secrecy, highlighted through the difficulties had in gaining access to senior management expenses, as well as pay inequality “represent a pattern which goes more hand in hand with the private,” Mr. Bashforth believes. Disputes over ‘unsustainable’ pension packages, a growing divide between academic and management pay (the UCU estimates that Bath has the largest national gap) and the long-drawn out battle over the ‘Living Wage’ are just some of the consequences of a cooperate university.

The business savvy would be sympathetic to the University’s search for new sources of revenue, but it is increasingly noticeable in the lives of students as well. Proposed changes to the academic year shape, which drew in 3,000 signatures in protest, were proposed by the University to make more room for funded research projects. Whilst John Struthers, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts, told bathimpact in January that “squeezing the assets” in The Edge might cause problems in addressing the balance between external users needed for revenue and student attendees of whom it was intended for.

Yet the student body is so often missing from this debate. As customers, we are kept satisfied. The University of Bath Students’ Union told bathimpact that budgets for student activities are monitored, but by no means micro-managed. Accommodation is moderately expensive, but by no means excessively so. We are, so to speak, ‘satisfied’ with the changes happening not just in Wessex House but in Westminster too. And if we’re not, we keep it to ourselves: only 100 people voted in a student-wide poll on whether Bath students should join a national demonstration against tuition fees in November last year.

The ‘golden age’ of universities, when students paid no fees and received generous grants, has ended; whether or not this was down to necessity is a matter of fierce debate. As for Bath, they are playing the game within the new system and they are playing it incredibly well. But as Hedley asks at the end of the interview: “Do you want to be in that game or do you want to change it to make it a better system?”

The question is, however, whether the likes of Hedley Bashforth can have it both ways or whether marketisation is simply the only way to manage the ever increasing demand for access to universities?

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