Universities up and down the country are causing students and staff many problems right now, and mine is no exception. March to September, Universities knew the realities of the pandemic for six months before this academic year began. There was ample time and experience to prepare for the second wave. But we were promised a ‘blended approach’ by both the University and Students’ Union which led thousands of students to finalise their housing contracts, costing them thousands of pounds each, to move back to town as if social distancing relinquished the risk of catching and spreading Covid. This is even though many lecturers were told categorically ‘if it can go online, it will go online’.
University management has shot down requests for institutional changes like a university-wide no detriment policy. They expect the same high-quality output from students who are isolated from one another whilst paying rent for an unnecessary room, and endorse a neoliberal narrative that tells its students to ‘take a nap’ or ‘treat yourself’ when they inevitably struggle with stress, anxiety and depression. They are also demanding our lecturers bend over backwards to provide online teaching as if the pandemic has barely ruffled a feather from staff who were also facing an ongoing struggle with the situation in higher education.
What is the problem?
Marketisation: it describes the neoliberal approach to providing a higher education system. In a nutshell, it means the university sector relies on ‘market competition’ to draw fees from students and offer attractive degrees. The inevitable result in this system is that education, our degree, is treated as a commodity to be bought. Students are now reduced to ‘consumers’ and lectures and academics are reduced to ‘service providers’. If a university fails to attract students, they fail to gain money, and they fall behind their competitors. This means that where the purpose of the university should be to learn and experience new ideas etc, it is now — like every other business — to keep its consumers ‘satisfied’ with the service they provide, lest they go bust (a risk many now seriously face).
So what does this ‘survival of the fittest’ free market system mean for us? Learning has been deprioritised over things that will attract new customers. Prospective students and their watchful parents are shown the newest expensive buildings on campus tours as if walking around a car dealership, and league tables are price comparison sites. The neoliberal model also means that liabilities and expenses are minimised at all costs, to allow for the borrowing that pays for these fancy-looking buildings. This means: outsourcing low paid jobs like porters, cleaners and security staff to ‘cost-effective’ companies, causalising university staff contracts and decreasing job security, cutting the pension scheme, and more. This has been happening for so long that of course, a crisis like this will cause a myriad of problems to erupt.
And if this wasn’t disturbing enough, the effects of neoliberalism are felt most by those most marginalised by the system. University staff in the lowest-paid positions — those often outsourced to private firms with undesirable contracts — are typically migrant workers (whose immigration status adds an extra barrier to unionising) and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. Academic staff face pay inequalities based on gender, ethnicity and disability and such groups of students face academic awarding gaps (usually mistermed ‘attainment’ gaps — a term which individualises the problem to students’ own personal performance, rather than an institutional failure).
UK universities are a muddle of contradictions wherein one breath they care about reducing barriers to entry for groups historically excluded from elite institutions — see their ‘Access and Participation Plans’, or more recently #BLM posts — whilst in another breath, they disregard the ill effects of their pursuit of financial success on student-consumers. They care about socio-economic divides until they realise that deepening them is good for the bottom line; elitism for profit.
This manifests in Universities charging all of their students the maximum amount they can get away with even though students who come from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds struggle to pay back their loans in full. Even though they want to be accessible to all kinds of prospective students, they would charge much higher fees if they could. In fact, they do. On the international market tuition fees for UK universities can be over double the already-monumental sum of £9,250 because those who can afford are willing to pay only the highest price for the lustrous brand-recognition that comes with a qualification from a Russell Group university. And that too would be the case at home, say for a handful of scholarships for us poor kids, if the government allowed it. This is the danger of neoliberalism; exclusivity is a built-in feature.
The Students’ Union’s misguided ‘neutrality’ is failing students
NB: this section is specific to my particular institution, but it demonstrates one example of how students’ unions systematically fail at their ultimate purpose; to defend students’ interests
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought these issues to the surface; at a time when we need our Students’ Union to fight for us most, the Union treats the matter not as if it were a real problem affecting swathes of students, but as merely one irrelevant political opinion that is not worth engaging with seriously. From the Union’s point of view, the crises we face with rent, mental health, tuition fees, and detriment to our grades and learning, along with the ongoing inconvenience of our lecturers constantly opting to take strike action, are all separate unexplainable phenomena that must be tackled individually somehow. ‘Marketisation?’ they say with incredulity, ‘Gah, we’re not all loony lefties!’ Allow me to explain…
In a bid to remain politically neutral and appear impartial when these issues arose during the UCU Strikes, The Students’ Union for my institution completely ignored the topic at hand at the expense of students’ interests by overriding their own democratic structures.
Coinciding with the first wave of strikes in 2019, the Students’ Union AGM passed a motion with around 70% approval to support striking staff (NB: staff includes postgraduate students). I did not see anything materialise in the aftermath of this vote. The Union then conveniently disregarded this vote in the second wave of strikes (in 2020) claiming that a small turnout of 100–200 votes is not enough to represent the student community — an odd position that contradicts the validity of the AGM entirely. Instead, it was decided that students would be asked again in a referendum…
Knowing that students were already overwhelmingly supportive of the strikes, the logical options for the referendum would have been to have one of two unambiguous options: ‘support vs don’t support the strikes’ (as it was presented in the past), or ‘support the strikes but not the action vs support the strikes and the action’ (given that it was previously clear that students already supported the UCU strikes). Instead, the Sabbatical Officers decided to have their cake and eat it by opting for a poorly-organised ‘preferendum’ hoping that one of three options would receive unimaginable popularity.
Apparently, the Union executive was quite surprised that arranging such a ‘preferendum’ did indeed split the vote three ways. Having prepared no plan of action for such an event where no overwhelming majority is reached in a first-past-the-post three-way vote, it retrospectively decided on the best course of action. Even though ‘supporting the strikes and the action’ received the most votes, they compromised by going with ‘supporting the strikes only, and not the action’ as a middle ground between the other two options that they deemed to be extremes. This flaccid decision undermined the point of holding a vote, which was to gather a definitive stance.
The Union took this option as a blank check to define what ‘supporting’ actually meant at a later time. In line with their decision on the vote, the Union supported (one can only assume) the philosophical reasoning that drove our lecturers to withhold their labour, whilst not supporting the very act of striking that the UCU undertook to expose and address such issues. It seemed that “lending space in our building” and speaking at a rally was all it meant to show solidarity for the strikes. In reality, it meant doing nothing for the cause that students voted for the Union to support on their behalf.
Once the Sabbatical Team decided that joining the strikes themselves was unnecessary, they saw no reason to engage with the matter further as if this meant all options were exhausted. The Students’ Union failed to engage students with the underlying issue of marketisation. Our striking lecturers opted to take industrial action, not for the first time, due to an ongoing dispute over their pensions scheme as well as growing problems that are felt nation-wide across the sector which are: pay inequality, job insecurity, rising workloads, and pay deflation. As the UCU members stated themselves their working conditions are our learning conditions. The system is in dire need of replacement when students and staff alike are pushed to the brink in academic institutions that are meant to benefit all of us, for the sole benefit of those at the top.
But if they forced themselves between a rock and a hard place by opting to support striking staff but not the actions of said striking staff, what could they have done in practical terms? Here are some ideas:
- Hosted UCU or student-led talks and debates.
- Put together action planning meetings to take appropriate action of their own that would be deemed ‘non-disruptive’ to students’ education.
- Held open forums/opportunities for students to voice their concerns, grievances or ideas.
- Pushed a letter-writing campaign for students to write to the Vice-Chancellor (who happened to be one of the negotiators in the national picture).
- Co-hosted teach-out events with the striking staff whom the Union theoretically supported.
- Sent out media to students about what marketisation (the crux of the issue) is.
But, apparently, none of those mattered because the Students’ Union supported the aims of the strikes in writing. Our Students’ Union was unable to comprehend that you can engage students with issues that affect them while remaining impartial themselves. Ignoring a controversial issue entirely might not be the best way to get results.
I honestly believe I unwittingly achieved more for students wanting to understand the issue at the time merely by interviewing various people and putting together a short explainer podcast for the student radio station.
Normally, you might scoff at the thought of putting so much emphasis on something as insignificant as a student union vote, but given that the Students’ Union has shown that this is the only way they know how to engage a consensus on a vaguely contentious student issue, we have nothing to do but dwell. It’s clear to me that student votes are there to be interpreted, and in many cases manipulated, at the will of incumbent Sabbatical Officers. Our Students’ Union’s democracy is a sham.
Okay, so what now?
Back to the topic at hand: Marketisation. The past is the past and right now we are at breaking point. The question that remains is: what is to be done?
While writing to the Vice-Chancellor to address these issues is always encouraged I shan’t hold my breath for this individualised action to achieve any kind of victory. Demanding a refund for Zoom University, just like demanding compensation for missed lectures due to strikes, works within the confines of the very model of marketisation that is the cause of these problems. If we want real solutions, we have to think outside of the system.
We have a government that is all too willing to sacrifice the elderly and vulnerable for the sake of the economy and blame carers and the NHS for the disastrous fallout; we have a university sector that is reliant on sucking out profit to survive at the cost of students’ and staff’s wellbeing; and student unions which lack the backbone or bite to stay true to their intentions and fight for their students. No one is going to fix this for us. The picture is bleak. However, all is not lost. As Avatar Aang said; when we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.
In this time of struggle, the UK student movement has rekindled its spark of radicalism and students across the country are organising. A historic wave of rent strikes is crashing down on overpriced student accommodation like never seen before. An article in Tribune states “It’s the biggest nationwide tenant action in 40 years — and has potential to shift housing dynamics not just for students, but for renters everywhere.” It is only with collective, not individual, action that we can leverage our power into real material change.
We must push not only against these cuts and squeezes, but we must also push for something. The relationship between the university and the student is a contractual one; a service provider and a consumer. But we are not here to be consumers, we are here to learn and create and discover. Therefore this relationship need not be antagonistic; the interests of students and the university need not be diametrically opposed. We must push for the university to be a public and open institution that serves the sake of education and knowledge; not a commercialised business that serves nothing but the economy. There was a time before marketisation, we must ensure there is a time after.