The political economy of higher education is changing writes Simon Renton in the Morning Star.

If the new Labour years saw a steady erosion of higher education with its marketisation by stealth, the current government is engaged in shock therapy.

The cuts to government funding of higher education, including the 80 per cent teaching funding cut and the Browne report, have transformed the ownership base of universities making them and their provision dependent on seeing students as consumers.

With fees increasing to up to £9,000 a year, working-class students now face rising barriers to access with the historic gains of the post-war period being decisively reversed.

The introduction of this competitive market will see some universities close. Many subject areas will radically diminish as non-cost effective disciplines face tougher cuts and falling working-class access to universities take their toll.

There will be a stratification of institutions into an Ivy League around the Russell Group, a middle layer and the post-'92 universities that survive, now competing with new private companies for the poorer student market.

The government's white paper is likely to see further moves to allow universities to become fully private and remove the last obstacles to the growth of for-profit universities, like BPP University College.

In the US, profit-seeking colleges are big businesses backed by large financial institutions and they are looking at the British market for new opportunities.

Students will face, at least, years of debt, a higher education system that pressures working-class students towards vocational degrees and predatory private companies touting for their custom.

Little wonder then that there has been an explosion of anger from students - from the November 10 demonstration to the protests around the fees Bill and the waves of occupations.

For University College Union (UCU) members everything is under attack in a bewildering multifaceted attack.

Departments and jobs are under threat across the board.

The government has indicated that it wants pay restraint and is demanding changes to the Teachers' Pension Scheme.

Yet the employers are also at fault.

They have signally failed to stand up for the sector, divided as they are among themselves.

The bigger, richer institutions have seized the main chance to try to position themselves in the new world, while the smaller, weaker ones seem cowed by the attack.

Their dependence on private funding will now hasten the attack on national bargaining agreements.

All employers are now trying, to varying degrees, to use the cover of the cuts to re-engineer their institutions, attacking the pension scheme, obstructing national pay bargaining, pushing through pay cuts, and eroding terms and conditions.

And all this will accelerate with the growing threat from the private sector.

We will see even greater erosion of professional autonomy and control of the work process under the pressure to subdivide, standardise and compartmentalise teaching, and drive it online to cut costs.

There is a debate in the UCU about how we respond.

Ultra-leftist arguments emphasise the need to fight on every front but show precious little understanding of how and where to prioritise our battles.

And with the range of forces against us, and the risks of catastrophic industrial defeats so great, that is a dangerous path.

That's why one recent development has seen a growing broad left organisation within UCU.

The principles of our response must be a need to ensure that while we show leadership we do not become disconnected from the mass of the membership.

This would lead to splits and defeats.

Demands for 8 per cent pay rises have not helped us build our response to the job cuts.

We must pick our battles carefully and explain to members why we pick them.

Where is the greatest threat?

Where do we deploy scarce resources?

Where do we have the greatest chance of carrying the members and winning?

We must position ourselves at the heart of the labour movement, within the growing movement against the public-sector cuts and for an alternative based on growth.

And this means preserving and building on our growing unity with other trade unions and the NUS, not treating them like poor relations who need to catch up with us.

The March 26 demonstration is absolutely critical.

If we cannot build a vast demonstration on that day we will know we are in a bad place to fight the cuts more generally.

All efforts must be bent on this demonstration.

That brings us to the issue of the student movement.

It has shown vitality and energy and we must nurture and sustain it in occupations and demonstrations, and look to help it build outwards.

But this can't mean sacrificing our relationship with the NUS for fringe organisations.

The very seriousness of the threats to our education system are producing new political developments within the union and the emergence of the broad left is a positive sign.

But we have a long way to go and we need to start to think about the future - about what sort of education system we want to build out of the ruins of the one being smashed down by the Con-Dem government and the employers.