Comment: have students become customers?

corporations - Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology
Customer or academic?

I recall attending a joint meeting hosted by the campus trade unions and Bath SU back in 2012, with then SU President David Howells and the late Marie Morley among the speakers and Des Freedman, co-editor of The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance as the keynote. After the meeting, I remember asking Marie: “Why should taxpayers fund degrees for which the graduate premium is less than the cost of the course?” She simply replied, “I disagree.” Three years later, I have come to see that she was right.

The general premise of Freedman’s book is that universities are slowly being transformed from unified, democratic communities into bodies that behave much like corporations, with the characteristic divide between managers, the managed and customers. This paradigm shift is grounded on two assumptions: that free markets are the most efficient model in most circumstances, and that the benefits of university education and research are largely economic. Back then, I was unsure about the first assumption but wholeheartedly agreed with the second.

It wasn’t just me; these assumptions were often held aloft not just by the government but by the students themselves. When the legislation for £9,000 fees was passed by Parliament in 2010, the Students’ Union and even bathimpact’s editorial team began to focus on how to use students’ newfound status as customers as leverage against the University, oblivious to how the very notion of division between business and customers undermines what a university is supposed to be about.

Until recently, the National Union of Students held the view that graduates should make at least some additional contribution to the costs of their studies that non-graduates with the same income do not. Most disturbingly of all, the proportion (yes, the proportion, not the number) of students graduating with a 2:1 or higher has doubled since the original £1,000 fees were introduced.

In the last couple of years, however, the Students’ Union has changed its tactics somewhat. Whereas the SU has previously treated negotiations like a game of chess, last year they unashamedly presented a list of demands to the Vice-Chancellor, including another call for the Living Wage, better pay and conditions for postgraduates who teach and the fixing of international student fees.

While these demands were mostly rejected, the SU did secure the Gold Button to allow disabled staff, students and visitors to report accessibility issues. Meanwhile, NUS changed its policy last year to support free education, following a dramatic debate at National Conference. This year, one of the main focuses is ‘lad culture’. This is arguably linked to the corporatization of education in that it is fundamentally anti-democratic and actively vilifies participation in academic life beyond getting a good grade at the end.

What has caused students’ unions to have such a change of heart? At first I thought it was largely due to universities being dominated by those who have paid £9000 fees, only to realise they’ve been cheated. But now I’m not so sure; I now think it’s more of a general backlash against managers’ increasing top-down control of universities, rendering previous negotiation strategies less effective.

It is of course impossible to dismiss the effect of the wider economic crisis. In times of hardship we are compelled to seek blame, hence the rise of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, the embodiments of laddishness made flesh. The cries of the poorest students, the victims of lad culture and depression sufferers have become too loud to ignore any longer.

The impact of this idea of the ‘corporate university’ is perhaps easier to see at other institutions, where several academic staff have been dismissed for failing to meet research income targets that were not in their contracts and imposed by managers in order to make savings. Dr. Alison Hayman of the University of Bristol is the latest high-profile victim of this. Meanwhile, a blanket ban on any and all demonstrations imposed by the University of Sussex management was recently overturned in the courts.

I’ve talked about students’ unions, but what are students on the ground doing? Demanding exam coaching instead of feedback. Saying, “if it’s not on the exam, I don’t care.” Propping up ‘lad culture’. Not even bothering to vote in SU elections. In other words, fast asleep.

Terry Pratchett famously wrote: “You enter university knowing you know everything, and leave knowing you know nothing.” If things keep going as they are, that will no longer be true and that quote will be replaced by one from Charlie Brooker: “In summary, our world is doomed.”

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