A degree of small-mindedness
If students keep demanding that education should be about ‘value for money’, they should stop whingeing about top-up fees.
Student demonstrators gathered in central London last Sunday to protest against the new university top-up fees – up to £3000 per year. You may have missed it; it was upstaged by an anti-war demo a few streets away, and the only live media coverage – on ITV news – noted that ‘motorists were disrupted today’ as a number of students held up traffic. Talking to students over the weekend about why they didn’t join the rally, many felt that the protest was ‘a bit late now’ or, according to Daryn McCombe, union president at King’s College London, ‘a bit early,’ as the top-up fees policy which the National Union of Students (NUS) hoped to bring down is not up for review for another three to four years.
Daryn and I met up in King’s College student union bar, which is called ‘The Waterfront’ because it boasts a beautiful, sun-dappled view of the river Thames. The Waterfront’s entry sign is subtitled ‘student life support’, but inside it looks less like a counselling centre and more like a suburban cocktail bar. From the outside, the union is a dirty-looking concrete building with lots of windows, but on the third floor, plush is the word that describes it best. There are canvas photographs of London street scenes bolted to the brown walls, brown leather booths, plasma TV screens, games units, a fluorescent blue juke box, subtle orange lights highlighting the ceiling, and stylish white lamps drooping down from it like large plastic tear drops. The café sells ‘delicious gourmet coffee and Covent Garden soup’.
With all this lushness, it’s slightly puzzling that students are still demanding more, more, more. But such is life in the brave new dawn of commercialised education. Since top-up fees came to King’s, Daryn explains, students are increasingly asking ‘where’s this, where’s that? Why aren’t there more water fountains?’ They’re not treating education ‘as a chance to look beyond themselves’ but as a ‘career step’. As students now pay for their education, they feel entitled to buy themselves the right results. ‘Students are becoming more and more litigious,’ Daryn explains. ‘They’re appealing over and over again against marks. Three years ago the academic board received about 50 appeals for independent adjudication a year. This year, there were 250 appeals.’
One of Daryn’s victories as union president has been to defeat an invasive measure to make students who wish to record lectures because of hearing problems prove their disability. This is not because ‘lecturers were reluctant to be recorded for reasons of copyright or intellectual property’, but ‘because if lectures are recorded and students repeat a point made there in an exam and then has their answer marked “wrong” they can sue’. Although Daryn holds no truck with these sorts of complaints, he does uphold students’ rights in terms of living conditions at the King’s College student halls, which, he explains, ‘is a military hospital converted in the 1950s and it hasn’t seen much refurbishment since then. There are tiled floors, bad beds, and mismatched furniture… When you’re paying for education, that isn’t really good enough’.
The turn out from King’s at Sunday’s demo was around 100. In the presidential office Daryn shows me digital photographs of the day. Before the demo, King’s students held a ‘workshop’ to widen participation and make their own personalised banners. Daryn describes the day itself as having ‘gone really well.’ Smiling students flash up, holding banners. He was pleased that the NUS managed to restrain themselves from ‘wasting money’ on placards ‘that just piss people off’, like those saying ‘Fuck Fees’. He explains that ‘there are children in central London and it just doesn’t help. It just perpetuates what is becoming legend already: that students are just the unwashed masses.’
Daryn was quietly annoyed by the small number of students who staged a sit-in on Parliament Square on Sunday as ‘they were never going to get any press coverage and all they did was annoy the police’. But why didn’t more students from King’s man the barricades? ‘The problem we have at King’s is that it’s a fairly good uni and it cares about its students. There’s not a massive lot for students to protest about, so we’re not going to inspire activism.’ But if this is the case, why did Daryn go himself? Because, he tells me, he fundamentally believes in free education for all. It’s like the war in Iraq, he says. The government has spent ‘billions and billions’ on the war, but the attitude to the army is, ‘whatever they need, they can have – so why can’t that attitude be applied to the public services?’
Although Daryn and many students believe that education should be free, they’ve thoroughly absorbed the idea that education should be a unit in the consumer economy. For instance, Daryn believes the many problems with science education today are down to fees: ‘Physics, for example, is good for the economy – but it’s an expensive degree and that’s putting people off,’ he explains. You will find it difficult to find a student who argues that physics should be studied for free and purely for the sake of physics. You just can’t sell that sort of line to society anymore. He disagrees with Tony Blair’s ‘arbitrary 50 per cent target’ for university enrolment. Instead, you need to ‘just look at what the economy needs and fill those needs. A lot of degrees, for example David Beckham studies at Birmingham or Norwich or wherever it was, are a pointless waste of time. We need to think about what’s best in terms of outcomes.’
Education long ago ceased to be about education. An NUS leaflet, presenting the case against top-up fees, treats the economic facts of the university ‘market’ in much the same way as the Daily Mail discusses house prices. Top-up fees are now a middle class whinge-fest. Did you know, for instance, that ‘according to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), the extra money you will earn as a graduate compared to a non-graduate has gone down by over £350,000 in the last three years alone! We deserve value for money in our teaching, high quality facilities, and world class resources to help us become better citizens.’ But then don’t students deserve Goa gap year tans, mummy to buy us a flat, cocktails in the union bar on a Thursday, matching halls furniture, crayfish and avocado wraps each lunchtime and an idiot-proof instruction leaflet on how to get top results too?
The ideal of free education – accessible to all regardless of income or heritage – is a good one. But if higher education is just about equipping people for jobs or making them ‘fit for society’, then why shouldn’t they pay for the benefits they accrue? If we understand education as merely ‘good for the market’ then it’s only a natural extension for it to be governed by market principles. But talk of education in terms of developing knowledge and critical faculties and then, and only then, do we have a rational argument against fee-dom and a real reason to go out and march.
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