How have students responded to the news that members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) - including many lecturers on campus - are striking to resist changes to their pensions? You would be forgiven if you mistook them for dissatisfied customers on the high street. “We pay a large amount for our tuition fees,” Conrad Whitcroft White, a student at my university, told the Guardian not long ago,
and we expect the university in return to provide us with the appropriate education and to pay the staff effectively enough to give us an education. They want students to pay but don’t want to give us consumer rights. If I were to pay for a water bill, and the water didn’t come through, I would expect compensation and it’s exactly the same with universities.
Reported in the same Guardian article are the words of Robert Liow, a student at King’s College London, describing his bluntly-titled campaign, Refund Our Fees:
This campaign stands in solidarity with striking lecturers and academics. The core demand of this campaign is that universities give us a refund of our fees for each day that academics are striking. Education should be a public good, but if universities insist on making us pay we will insist on our money back.
Dissatisfied customers, indeed. But this is precisely how these students perceive themselves. To them, universities are providing goods and services just like any other private company in the marketplace; we students are the consumers, debt-financing our purchase of their products. We students pay a large sum of money to the university and, in return, we receive a degree.
This is very much the relationship between a university and a student that is desired by the Government. The Conservatives have long sought to make our universities behave like businesses. They have injected competition, the much-idolised condition with the fabled promise of ever-brightening futures for everyone, into the higher education system. Courses must be worth your money: to win over prospective clients, academic establishments should fight over their positions in numerous league tables and regularly let us know how well graduates are doing in the job market.
The loudest critics of this movement are academics themselves. Some, such as Stefan Collini, make no bones about how they feel about the Government’s agenda. Others accept it with reluctance, seeing no credible challenge to the Government’s plans. All the same, teaching loses its appeal. Academics are expected to pay more attention to student satisfaction, graduate employment prospects and delivering value for money. It leads to spoon-feeding and a watered-down curriculum. “How did we do?” the lecturers ask us at the end of each module, handing out the same kind of surveys that bore us when we shop online.
Academics are bound to shudder at the marketisation of institutions of intellectual endeavour; but students ought to shudder too. Consumer rights might make you feel more powerful, but there’s more to a university education that getting value for money. We don’t come to university exclusively to brighten our CVs. A university education lets us pursue our intellectual interests at a greater depth while meeting new people, learning new skills and discovering new things along the way. Altogether, it can be an unforgettable experience; not something to be treated simply as a perk to help get your first job.
Nonetheless, in a market there are customers and in a market of education, those customers are students. They expect a standard of education to be provided from these institutions, regardless of their histories, traditions and structures. And when those standards aren’t met - when the university fails to uphold its end of the bargain - we students are entitled to compensation.
Students are taking this approach already. Earlier this week the Independent reported the ambition of a graduate to take her university to court. The graduate, Pok Wong, wants £60,000 from Anglia Ruskin University for not awarding her a degree that helped her job prospects. She makes her goals clear here:
I hope that bringing this case will set a precedent so that students can get value for money, and if they don’t they get compensated. Anglia Ruskin talked a good talk but then they didn’t deliver.
The attitudes of some students toward universities and their lecturers betrays not just their willingness to go along with the Government’s market-based agenda, but the Government’s progress in putting market thinking in another non-market domain. Note Robert Liow’s final words: “if universities insist on making us pay we will insist on our money back.” We shouldn’t be so insouciant. Rather than conceding to the market in education, we should be critiquing it.