UCU's third 'Cradle to Grave' Conference

UCU's third major conference on the defence of public education in London, held on Saturday 6 February.

The conference is an opportunity to discuss current issues in further and higher education with policy makers, fellow practitioners and politicians.

Our guest speakers this year: Jeremy Corbyn MP. Keynote speakers: Paul Mason and Natalie Bennett.


Update: watch our video report from the conference.


'Markets, money and metrics - just what are further and higher education for in the age of austerity?'

In the age of austerity, access to further and higher education is rationed: Market-driven government policies increase the cost of participation while at the same time narrow the curricular offer.

In our universities as pressure increases to replace grants with loans, the size of students' financial contributions dominates the political discourse both in terms of the quality of education and the relationship between teacher and taught.

Yet the system created by the Westminster government in 2010, while increasing the cost of university for students, has made little difference to public expenditure than the previous model due to the high level of debt default. Meanwhile research funding in universities is ever more greatly concentrated upon a small number of elite organisations and, like teaching, relies upon an exploited army of casually employed staff.

There is a critical divergence too within the nations of the UK about how best to fund higher education. Scotland favours a larger role for the state, while England, Wales and Northern Ireland are more likely to channel funding directly through students.

Further education colleges have traditionally supplied the bulk of people who go to university from disadvantaged or so called non-traditional backgrounds. They have also provided opportunities for those looking to learn new skills or to retrain.
The English government is now embarking upon a major programme of reform which, if unchallenged, will leave fewer, larger colleges focused almost entirely upon vocational, employer-driven programmes. This trend towards mergers and concentration in England is predated by similar moves in recent years in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and is primarily a cost cutting exercise.

In all nations, these changes are taking place against a backdrop of tightening public expenditure and an unwillingness or inability of governments to increase public funding for further and higher education.

Underpinning these significant changes, is the monetisation of education; the increased pressure to use metrics to measure the quality of teaching, research and student outcomes and the market-driven pressure to cut provision or even institutions which fail to meet these narrow, financially driven targets.

This conference seeks to explore the purpose of further and higher education in such circumstances, and to tackle head on the economic, social, cultural and political challenges the education faces in defending its core mission against the challenges presented by markets, money and metrics.

Programme highlights

Welcome to conference: Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary

Opening address: Jeremy Corbyn

The Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn is the Leader of the Labour Party. Jeremy will address the conference on the social and economic importance of further and higher education to the UK.

Keynote speakers:

Higher education 'in focus' session

We have three speakers whose work is at the cutting edge of the current debate about the marketisation of higher education.

Andrew McGettigan will begin the session with an overview of the state of higher education drawing upon his recent, prescient book 'The great university gamble: money, markets and the future of higher education' ( UCU Cradle to Grave, Andrew McGettigan presentation, Feb 16 [1Mb]). Dr Meera Sabaratnam will explore the metrification of higher education through such mechanisms as the Teaching and Research Excellence Frameworks, highlighting the implications of these processes for students, staff and academic freedom. Professor Mike Neary will talk about 'the idea of the university', the importance of fighting to maintain free public higher education and defending democratic academic values within the current university system as well as developing alternatives to the current system ( UCU Cradle to Grave, Professor Mike Neary presentation, Feb 16 [6Mb]).

Further  education 'in focus' session

We have four speakers who represent a unique blend of practitioners, academics, and learners all of whom have strong views about the need to defend FE's mission.

Dr Rob Smith will provide an overview of the current politics of further education, looking in particular at the UK wide policy of cost cutting, college merger and concentration and its impact on provision ( UCU Cradle to Grave, Dr Rob Smith presentation, Feb 16 [1Mb]). Toni Pearce, herself a former FE student and activist, will talk about the importance of lifelong learning to UK society and the economy. Bursaries campaigner Danielle Tiplady will talk about her own journey from care home worker in Bath to nursing student at Kings College London and why access to further and higher education remains so critical for those from non-traditional groups. Dr Vicky Duckworth will draw on her own research and practitioner experience to set out why further and Adult education must offer a critical space to support and empower learners to take agency.

Closing plenary - what is to be done?

Our closing panel is Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary (Sally Hunt speech sets out case for fairer education system); Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party; Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford and an author and commentator: Paul Mason, 'Postcapitalism' author 

The panel will each set out their own views on how best further and higher education can defend their mission in an age of austerity.

Last updated: 15 February 2016