The Government’s line on the increase in tuition fees was extremely evident during the debate on the vote last Thursday: it’s what university Vice Chancellors have been calling for.
Skimming over the relative untruthfulness of this argument, the increase in fees means that the english university has become a radically different playing field, and the internal politics has shifted almost irreversibly. The relationship between students and their university will never be the same, nor will the relationship between students and their unions and those unions and universities.
Students’ Unions will no longer be able to rely on being just the critical friend of universities. They will soon find that the only viable way to continue representing students in a market based higher education system is to take on the role of consumer watchdog – there to ensure the university is delivering on the promises which made students buy into it in the first place.
Whether this is what Vice chancellors have been calling for is somewhat doubtful. If student unions do come to represent sector watchdogs, then universities will be forced to afford them more credibility and respect then they currently receive. At Lancaster specifically age old battles about space and the student experience will cease to be points which can be flip-flopped over. They’ll become points on which the University can make or break itself in the eyes of current and potential consumers.
The full details of this change to the higher education sector are still unknown. Full legislation will be coming to Parliament in 2011, and until then all that can be done is speculate on how universities and students will operate in a market economy. In that time unions need to prepare themselves for more battles ahead.