The tuition fee debate needs to be about so much more than student debt
Since Labour pledged to scrap tuition fees, the debate around university funding has been blown wide open. Both praise and criticism of the policy has come thick and fast, and not always from where you might expect- even Left Foot Forward published a piece arguing in favour of tuition fees, highlighting statistics that show it would primarily be better-off graduates that would save the most from Labour’s plans to scrap them.
This reflects the general hesitation from some on the left about scrapping fees – HE is seen as a choice or a private good, or free education is seen as a ‘middle class subsidy’, or some combination of the three. What’s more, many other commentators point to the fact that university admissions are higher than ever, especially amongst working class individuals.
Even on their own terms there are problems with these arguments. Firstly, just because better-off graduates would benefit more, doesn’t mean scrapping fees won’t help working-class individuals as well. What’s more, fees have had a demonstrable impact on university recruitment – there has been a lasting effect on the number of part-time students entering higher education, and there was a significant drop in applications overall the year tripled fees came in (although numbers have recovered in subsequent years). But ultimately, the current debate is barely scratching the surface of the issues in HE – defending fees by downplaying their impact on recruitment and debt misses the most damaging effects they are having.
Fees have played a role in conjuring the spectre sweeping UK campuses: marketisation of higher education. This is a process that is eroding the foundations of what our universities are meant to be, in which they increasingly act as businesses, where profit, not learning, is the primary goal of higher education institutions, and students are increasingly treated like consumers, purchasing a product.
Psychologically, this is damaging for students. Student mental health issues are on the rise, reaching seriously worrying levels in recent years. Whilst this rise likely stems from a number of sources, researchers and campaigners are beginning to link this to financial stresses, including tuition fees and living costs – as debt piles up and other pressures are added onto day to day living, no wonder students are feeling the pressure.
It’s damaging for academic practice too – a recent study conducted by psychologists at University of Winchester and Goldsmiths, London, found that, on average, those students that approached their education as a ‘consumer’ and saw their degree as ‘a product they were purchasing’ received worse grades than those students that instead emphasised academic and intellectual development. Paula Cocozza has written how this mindset is altering the relationship between students and lecturers, with her asking “Well, if you can take back an ill-fitting dress, then why not an ill-fitting grade?” When a degree is something you buy, there is a danger that it becomes something you expect, demand, not something you have to work for.
Linked to this is the agenda of ‘employability’ – students jumping through hoops to learn often pointless or patronising lessons to be better placed to get a job that often doesn’t exist. Students accept, in places even demand, the employability agenda because we are aware of the enormous debt we are under and feel the need for this ‘investment’ to translate into a well-paying job. It’s not that wanting good grades and jobs is a bad thing – but when this becomes the primary, if not the only, focus, learning is inevitably hampered.
The enhanced state intervention in universities that has been necessary to advance the marketisation agenda has come along with a whole host of often very flawed metrics and assessments that can pile pressure on academics and distort the pursuit of knowledge. With this market-fetish also comes an aping of corporate culture. Lavish spending on rockstar-VC’s (many with private chauffeurs, homes and chefs coming attached), bloated marketing budgets and fancy new buildings come at the same time as pay for ordinary staff is held back, postgraduate students are exploited in the workplace and smaller, non-profitable courses having to fight for survival.
Students’ Unions, organisations that are meant to champion student rights, to challenge all of the above, are being tamed by this process too. Whilst the student movement boasts a radical history, many (though certainly not all) SU’s now feel more like professional feedback ‘services’, than radical grassroots mobilisers. NUS has warned “If they [Students’ Unions] take a ‘mile wide and inch deep’ approach to membership engagement, keeping their members at arm’s length and trying to deliver change ‘professionally’ for and not with the membership then they risk failing to mobilise their members to create real, transformational change.”
Many officers fail to challenge their universities out of fear of damaging ‘good working relationships’ (or future careers) and many now shun the very idea of being ‘political’. Not taking a stance on crucial, macro issues that impact your students is viewed by many unions officers and staff as a mature, professional, responsible approach to unionism.
This is the crowning achievement of neoliberalism: its focus on the individual and its disdain for collective democratic decision making has eroded our belief in politics, in the foundation and lifeblood of what unions are meant to be about. This is rooted in the marketisation of university life (as well as the wide commodification of society), as universities co-opt unions into boosting their ‘student experience’ scores by offering unions more funding (sometimes with overt strings attached, sometimes just giving unions a sense of obligation to their paymasters) and the conception of higher education being an essentially private good to be consumed.
None of this means fees are to blame for all the woes laid out here – but they are a significant factor in them, and their abolition opens up space for a wider discussion about what higher education should be, what power relations in universities should look like. Powerful alternatives are there, waiting to be embraced by the wider higher education sector, such as the cooperative universities developing across the country and the world, offering a vision of democratic education, where all who participate are scholars that can influence the direction of learning.
The great irony is that, even as its systems for reproducing itself are collapsing, capitalism is infecting our higher education like never before, selling us a narrative that simply doesn’t match reality. Scrapping fees is not a panacea for the issues that plague academia, but it can act as the first salvo in the ensuing battle for the soul of higher education. It’s up to all of us who value a critical, relevant, democratic educational experience to fire it.