A couple of weeks ago at Cardiff University, I attended a Q&A about the impact of the recent strikes by university lecturers. When someone raised the question of whether or not students would get any financial compensation for the disruption, the answer given to the audience by a senior member of staff was that ‘you are paying for an experience, you are not paying for a product.’
However, the increasing commodification of higher education signifies that university degrees and education as a whole is continually being treated as a product, where students are treated as consumers who are the recipient of a service. And during the strikes, this was a service that was not being delivered.
Tuition fees pay for a wide range of different things. The upkeep of university buildings, the books in the library and mental health services are all funded, in part, by our tuition fees. But the salaries of lecturers are also funded by tuition fees and during the strikes, universities did not have this outgoing and we did not have the full ‘experience’ of the education we are, ultimately, paying for. So why are most students not being compensated financially for the lack of service being provided to them?
I think this is an opportune moment to declare my utmost support and solidarity for university lecturers in their strike action. They are set to lose a significant proportion of their pensions that they will have worked their whole lives for. My problem is therefore not with them, but with the wider treatment of students in a university system that is putting more emphasis on economic gain from young people, than on providing an education- something that is widely regarded as a basic right in modern society.
However, what I do understand is that it will be extremely hard to quantify how much students should be entitled to in a refund. Whilst people can work out how many contact hours they have missed and work this out as a proportion of their tuition fee, this is unsustainable because our tuition fees are not only spent on our lectures. In spite of this, students are not receiving something they are paying for, whatever the amount of that payment may be.
Therefore, the treatment of students is indicative of a system that has monetised the very thing they are often most passionate about-the subject they are studying. To describe this education as ‘an experience’ undermines the struggles many students and their families encounter in order to attend university. Whilst the extra-curricular activities and social aspect of university life is an experience, the service that universities offer is an education, and it is an education that is a product. Furthermore, despite not officially being a business, universities have vast investment funds and operate as an entity that is concerned with profit.
Education should not be treated as a product or a service we have to pay for. But the current economic and political environment is conducive to sustaining the idea that higher education can only be given to us if we pay thousands of pounds. Ultimately, whilst university has been a great experience, I am paying for a service, I am paying for an education and I am paying for a product.