Higher education reform under the Conservatives has been largely passed by sneaky secondary legislation that pre-empts debate, circumnavigating democratic deliberation to push through undemocratic and ill-thought out proposals. If these reforms are truly the best thing for universities and students alike, as we're consistently told they are, why has our government been so keen to sneak them in the back door, instead of singing them from the rooftops?
Many of the defenses of the reforms to Higher Education are based on either misunderstandings of the criticisms, or at times simply outright lies. Despite the much touted 'fact' that the tripling of tuition fees has had 'no discernible impact on student levels' in reality the year the higher fees were introduced in England saw a decline in applications of over 120,000- nearly a tenth of the student population at the time. But arguments about pricing individuals out of an education are not just limited to immediate effects- what happens when the first generation of high-fee payers hit their thirties and are bringing up kids and struggling to pay off mortgages (or sky high rent) when there are not enough graduate jobs to go around? What impact will fee repayments have on those individuals in a decade's time, and the prospects of their children?
The psychological onslaught of a consumerist mind-set is damaging to those that are still coming too. A recent study conducted by psychologists at University of Winchester and Goldsmiths, London, found that those students that approached their education as a 'consumer' and saw their degree as 'a product they were purchasing' on average received worse grades than those students that instead emphasised academic and intellectual development. Far from this being reason to blame students, it is rather evidence of the toxicity of the attempts to refashion a public good as a private purchase.
The other notorious nugget, that it is the 'best loan you'll ever get', is also questionable, with the loans looking increasingly less attractive as time and austerity wears on. A typical example of this was the Chancellors decision, flying in the face of advice from 95% of those consulted, to freeze the loans repayment threshold (despite initial promises not to do precisely this), calculated to be costing graduates an extra £300 a year by 2020- a decision buried away in an obscure part of the Autumn Statement. The already-dubious claims are put under even more strain when you factor in recent developments like attempts at selling off the student loan book to private companies and with Jo Johnson, Universities minister, now seeking to crack down on failed repayments with harsher prosecutions. This is without even mentioning the scrapping of grants and other forms of support, forcing students to shoulder even more debt.
Even areas with supposedly devolved powers are feeling the pinch too: with Northern Ireland's budget being cut, Stormont is reducing the funding it is giving to educational institutions, including my university, Queen's. This has led to talk by our Vice-Chancellor, Patrick Johnson of raising our fees, and already the university is merging schools, closing courses and getting rid of staff. Yet Queen's is an example of a growing trend- universities run like 'businesses' and senior managements almost too willing to go along with the austerity mantra- Queen's had a budget surplus of £40 million last year and paid a number of senior staff eye-watering salaries. Far from improving student education, free-market reform has led to universities hoarding cash, lavishing top dogs and pouring resources into marketing gimmicks, whilst student support and learning suffers. Increasingly, in line with being consumers rather than collaborative scholars, we are asked our opinion on the shallow and placated with the superficial, but excluded from the real issues.
These reforms are meant to save the taxpayer money, and ensure better quality and more choice for students, yet the reforms will fail on both accounts- it has been calculated that, whilst on average students are going to end up paying more for the privilege of being educated over their lifetimes, the government has managed to concoct a system in which this won't actually save the public purse any money- indeed it might even ending up costing tax payers more too. As for 'better quality and choice', education is simply unfit for a market system the same way food or clothing is: students don't really get to choose multiple times which university they go to like you can swap your cereal or deodorant purchases, and the quality of the 'good' in being purchased is not evident sometimes until years after initial 'purchase' when it comes to education. Or to put it in the words of a recent Financial Times article, 'running a university is not like selling baked beans'.
Every single university, college and school across the country needs to have its own revolution- a powerful display of student unity and power, one that shows their institutions, their regional powers and Westminster that students are not an easy target and education is not something that can be thrown on the scrap heap. We need to fight against the mantra of austerity and market forces and demanded our government realise the value, as well as the cost of free education and other vital public services. As long as we're seen as apathetic, docile or uninformed, this government that understands the value of so little will continue to run roughshod over our futures, turning our education into corporate training camps, burdening us with debt, stripping us of support and excluding us from decisions.
The great academic, author and activist Howard Zinn devoted his life to highlighting the untold story of the millions of small acts that build even the most historic of movements- small acts that come together and coalesce into real progressive change. At a time when it is easy to look at politics and feel betrayed, beaten and broken, it is important to remember this message: every small act, every bit of defiance, every meeting, petition, conversation, blog, march and occupation matters and makes a difference, and together they can form the backbone of a powerful challenge to the austerity agenda. It's the easiest thing in the world to feel powerless- but by working together, my neglected and broken generation could change the world.