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Covid students shut out of university – fight for education for all

After the #ALevels2021Strike won teacher assessed grades earlier this year, many universities are offering fewer places, despite A-Level students exceeding the minimum grade requirements. For example, Liverpool University made only 43 offers for their dentistry course and deferred 30, compared to 142 offers and 152 deferred last year.

Last year the Tory government tried to force through a grading system based on a discriminatory algorithm that marked down students from schools with historically lower grades (That is: overwhelmingly more working-class schools and schools with higher proportion of students from BAME backgrounds). This would have prevented students from achieving the best grades simply due to going to school in a deprived area. However this merely formalised what was already a reality in our racist, anti-working class education system. More working-class schools were marked down by the algorithm because capitalism already maintains a cycle of inequality, assuring marginalised students generally achieve worse grades (with a few exceptions). This is just one way in which the myth of meritocracy does not live up to reality.

Educational inequalities exacerbated

Obviously, the pandemic has been very disruptive for students studying for their A-Levels and this has not been felt evenly. As always it is working-class students, especially those from BAME backgrounds that have been hit hardest. This is not only because different schools and colleges have been affected to different extents, but also because of other factors such as cramped or noisy studying conditions at home, while wealthier families could afford private tutors to minimise the impact of schools closing. This will worsen the grade gap that inherently disadvantages working class and BAME students under capitalism.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) report from September 2020 found that the pandemic is worsening educational inequalities, while schools for deprived students had already been subject to the largest decline in funding per pupil. It predicted that up to this year, schools in poorer areas will see their funding increase by between 3 and 4 percent less than those in richer areas. Funding for schools in England fell by 9% in real terms over the last decade, and sixth forms have been the worst affected by these attacks, which have had their funding cut by a quarter.

The Tories were forced to abandon this algorithm, due to widespread anger and mass mobilisation of students; however, this poor handling by the government led to chaos as universities that had made offers based on the old grade suddenly had many more students meet the grade requirements. Faced with the opportunity to rake in more money from students’ rent and loan payments, universities happily followed up on the offers. Campuses already have more students than was expected, while many more places have already been deferred from last year.

Underfunding

This is following decades of underfunding and a deliberate policy by university management to squeeze in as many students as possible onto campuses for financial reasons, without investing in the necessary wider infrastructure. This means that over capacity universities are unable to deal with the influx of new students, while living, studying and working conditions suffer for students and staff. University managements’ disastrous handling of the covid pandemic has further exposed how they prioritise extracting the most possible in fees and rent over students’ education, living conditions and even safety.  The clearest example of this has been exposed through the Student Rent Strike Movement. After students had been promised normal face-to-face teaching to bring them to university accommodation, heavy restrictions were imposed leaving many students isolated in cramped housing without an option to refund their tenancy contracts. The brilliant rent strike against this has won concessions at many universities.

 Now that universities have felt the effect of their overcrowding on universities in the name of profit, they have switched to a hyper-cautious approach, amid fears of “inflated” grades. Professor Richard Harvey, academic director of admissions at the University of East Anglia (UEA), as quoted in the Telegraph, states that most schools have “at least one” student with good predicted grades that applied to 5 universities but received no offers. A factor in this is strict limits placed on certain courses such as medicine. At a time when the already underfunded National Health Service is under increased pressure, it is absurd that universities are being made to turn away “very well qualified students”, when we should be increasing the number of healthcare professionals being trained. In healthcare, as in education and all other sectors, the capitalists and their governments put profit before public services. Even the limited measures currently proposed to support healthcare courses would only come at the expense of cuts to other courses – as we have explained previously.

Build the fightback

Students and staff throughout the education sector should fight for proper funding so that all universities can provide a high level education to students, not just a few of the most prestigious institutions. This is necessary to end the two tier system where working class students are funnelled into universities where their hard work is rewarded with an under-valued degree, while the top universities are predominantly restricted to more advantaged students. University funding should be fought for alongside proper funding for vocational education and other alternatives to university. Together with democratic control of students, teachers and support staff, this will assure institutions provide a high level of education and break free from the logic of profit and marketisation.