Increased marketisation could ostracise students from low-income households as there are growing pressures to keep up with the financial demands of a ‘new’ neoliberal university.
Universities have, in recent years, adopted the structures of public and private-sector companies. As they gradually succumb to greater levels of marketisation, students from low-income backgrounds are beginning to feel the pressures of attending a new type of neoliberal institution. An institution which favours investment over student inclusivity, hiked prices over student satisfaction.
Increased efforts have gone into encouraging students from low-income backgrounds to consider university: 45% of students from “low participation neighbourhoods” as The Sutton Trust notes, now attend. While this is a step in the right direction, there is a failure in warning students from low-income backgrounds of the realities that universities contain. There is a failure to inform students of their position as a consumer, which upon realisation can have a negative impact on students and their studies. It stems back to 2010 when the then Universities Minister, David Willetts, announced the proposed fee increase from £3,290 to £9,000. This led to a wave of students in outrage at their place as a consumer. It also served as the initial step in deterring low-income students, as disregard for meritocracy across institutions grew. The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension disputes in 2018 have caused students to be, once again, made aware of their position as the consumer. Students across the United Kingdom have depicted their anger through social media storms and occupations.
The fact that a student is a consumer and the university is a service alienates those who cannot keep up with the demands of the service. For instance, the issue of marketisation can become glaringly obvious as soon as freshers’ week, when students are encouraged to join societies, memberships of which can set students back upwards of £20. For many, this amount of money can necessitate more shifts at work or mean that they are unable to afford meals. Societies are depicted as an integral part of university education; they are there to enrich students but still fail to accommodate those who are unable to afford the fee for this ‘enrichment.’ While many societies are affiliated with the students’ union, the transactional relationship still rings true- the student remains a consumer, while a part of the institution takes its position as a service.
Arguably, this growing marketisation remains deeply entrenched in neoliberal politics. Such politics stems from the New-Right free market discourse which led to the 1988 Education Reform. This enforced marketisation of schools; pitted institutions against one another and created league table circuses that sent parents into overdrive- not to mention the emergence of The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) reports in 1992, which forced schools to adopt bureaucratic-business style procedures. Such reforms created a strong divide between students from middle-income and low-income families. Similarly, universities adopted a quasi-version of this New-Right model in 1993. Universities began to be measured on their ability to effectively marketise, their positions on league tables and student satisfaction.
Student satisfaction is something which many institutions pride themselves on, and one of the boxes that are to be ticked in university performance. But this satisfaction itself can be damaged by the neoliberal university. Growing commodification of education has an impact on how students view relationships with lecturers, and as a result, their subject satisfaction. Often, students from low-income backgrounds are forced to hit the ground running, with little prior prep and support from schools. While some university departments bridge this gap well, and provide support for disadvantaged students, there is a risk of damaging this support system when the relationship between student and lecturer dissolves into a mere transaction. The second education is commodified, it disrupts the equilibrium- you see a shift from genuine lecturers who want to share their knowledge with equally excited learners, to lecturers and students that are unwittingly partaking in a mundane retail transaction that you experience during a Saturday job.
This attempt to create a retail-type relationship is, somewhat, unsettling. If students are taught to view the university and their lecturers as providing a service, then you encourage the disparaging behaviour that service industries are experiencing- the angry customer two minutes before closing time type of behaviour. You promote the dialogue that leads to petitions where students demand compensation for the times strike action disrupts their ‘service’. We, as students, risk becoming a generation of guinea pigs under marketisation. However, it is a reality we must face.
Advocates of marketisation encourage students to try and get their money’s worth, but fail to acknowledge the growing damage marketisation has on the social systems in universities. It furthers class divide and hinders those from low-income families. Why? Well, simply put, the more we place price tags on education and promote the consumer-seller relationship, the more favourable it becomes towards the rich, and the less accessible it becomes for those in low-income households.
Marketisation is draining our institutions of good quality education, but also excluding students from low-income backgrounds. Students are unable to access equal opportunities as there are growing pressures on their lecturers to deliver under a marketised institution that profits from their energies. To clarify, the blame is not on hardworking academics, but the neoliberal institutions which pit lecturers as the service and students as consumers to please.
It is time to end the exploitation of students as consumers and restore a balance in universities. Only when this feat is achieved, that a fairer system for all -regardless of financial background- can be ensured.