This week, three universities in London are under occupation - shout out to LSE, UAL and King's students for taking action! - and it's not just about fees. We need a free education, because its marketisation at the moment is not only making universities inaccessible and elitist, but it's ruining the very purpose of their foundation: academia.
I can't count the number of times during my degree when I have had to ask myself whether I want to write the essay that will get me the higher mark or the one that is authentic to my academic project and integrity. Should I take the risk and write my dissertations for the purposes of what I (and my supervisors) see as good, important academic contributions to make, or should I play it safe and do what I know will get me a good grade?
I'm writing two dissertations at the moment, so that question has been playing on repeat in my head for a while. But it shouldn't have to have been. The reason I've been struggling so much with it is that my degree has been, quite literally, sold to me as an investment in my future: I have to 'do well' so I can go on and get a good job and be a successful adult. And 'doing well' has been exclusively framed as getting-a-high-mark. Because the higher the mark, the higher the value of the product (sorry, degree) I have purchased (sorry, earned).
The problem lies in the ways in which we have come to value academic work - not because of its merit on its own terms but because of whether or not it fits into a pre-prescribed set of criteria. And in the fact that for the university (as for the school or the FE college), grades are the product by which they can improve their brand image and secure money - by winning funding or getting more customers (sorry, students).
There are innumerable problems inherent in the setting of these marking criteria, a huge one being that they often play out in damagingly oppressive ways. For example, women students are told to 'write like men', because a 'masculine' style of writing is apparently more rigorous and academic than a 'feminine' one. This is both ridiculous and poisonous on so many levels, but is still trotted out by Cambridge supervisors year after year. Similarly, modes of analysis linked to struggles for liberation - feminist and queer criticism, for example - are often less valued than more 'traditional' approaches. I have been told several times that if I want to 'do well' in my exams, I need to write less about women, or take a 'less single-mindedly feminist approach' (to quote one supervisor).
An education system that actively choses to value the voices, practices and methodologies of privilege is damaging to everyone involved, but particularly to students from marginalised groups. The need for a free education comes directly out of this: education should be a source of liberation, not oppression. Our reading lists should represent our diversities of identity and interests, because they should be ours, and because academia as a whole benefits from the inclusion and validation of diverse opinions and ideas. We need academic as well as financial freedom.
Students shouldn't have to ask themselves whether their work is passable; they should have to ask themselves whether it is good, whether it is saying something important. Likewise, academics shouldn't be restricted by the marketability of their research and writing. Universities (and their management, in particular) need drastically to reassess what they hold up as 'valuable' - particularly in terms of whether the way this valuation plays out as sexist, homophobic, racist, classist and ableist - and question where, when and why they are putting financial value above academic worth.
But the blame isn't really on the university (and certainly not on the academics, who are equally damaged by these problems), but on the system that necessitates this attitude: the neoliberal approach to higher education. Not only did Willets' decision to introduce £9000 fees make zero financial sense because students simply cannot afford to pay back their loans, but it has actively damaged the ability of universities to exist as academic institutions.
We need a free education: because only an education that isn't tied to finance can be liberated, liberating and academically meaningful.