For all that’s said about the 'enriching experience' of higher education, university is becoming incredibly expensive.
On top of the tens of thousands of pounds it costs to read Plato and Jane Austen for three years, students from low income households will now be forced to take on further loans following George Osborne’s announcement last month that the government will be cutting maintenance grants.
The National Union of Students has been quick to condemn this policy, urging the government to "take note of the views of students and the real concerns they have about student debt." But beyond this press release from full-time student politicians, there are only faint murmurs of discontent from those whom they represent.
This reticence seems stark when contrasted with the student reaction to the trebling of tuition fees five years ago. Around 50,000 students were drawn to a whole series of demonstrations in 2010; a Facebook page entitled ‘Students against UK top up fees reaching £7,500 per year’ (created before the figure was settled at £9,000) even garnered more than 160,000 ‘Likes’.
So where are the campus occupations today? Where are the walk-outs and the rallies? It's not as if young people are content with the extortionate amount of money they are paying for their degrees; recent NUS polling revealed 77% of graduates "were worried or very worried about their student debt".
Asked whether he’d take part in a demonstration against government policy, one undergraduate at Bristol University suggested: "Student protest hasn’t really been shown to work, however big or small. […] I’d be nervous about those on the fringe who want to turn the day in a negative way."
Another claimed the scrapping of grants "is definitely a protest-worthy issue […] But I think a proper insight into how it will affect aspiring students' lives would be the most valuable thing, not just shouting and chanting."
Perhaps then, this straight-to-the-barricades style of activism has become uninspiring to many who feel they know what they can expect from a demonstration: waking up at the crack of dawn for a five-hour coach trip to London, the Socialist Workers Party turning out in force with a mass of Palestine placards, and the media inevitably framing the event as one of violence against the police.
Fractures and splits between quarreling sects have also weakened the student movement since 2010. Earlier this year, the NUS and the NCAFC came to blows after the former refused to support a free education march organised by the latter. Toni Pearce, the NUS President, justified the organisation’s decision by speaking out against the "unacceptable level of risk that this demonstration currently poses to our members."
Though the two groups have since reconciled and the NUS has adopted a policy to support an upcoming march organised by the NCAFC, Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President (Higher Education), claims the union also has priorities beyond protesting: "[The NUS] have recently been working on changing the discourse around student 'consumerism' and promoting an agenda of partnership and democratising our institutions.”
Arguably, this is the biggest obstacle for student activists to overcome if they are to build a movement beyond their own ranks. With fewer people applying for arts and humanities courses, it is evident the trebling of tuition fees under the last government has endowed many students with a very calculating, utilitarian view of education, whereby learning is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
Such a mindset is hardly conducive to campaigning efforts. How, for instance, can you convince a student from the UK to support their international coursemates faced with deportation if they regard them merely as job-competitors? In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Higher Education Academy found that one in ten students believe their international counterparts detract from the quality of academic discussion in lessons.
Before a case can successfully be made to politicians for a better educational model, students themselves must be galvanised into action.