Comment controversy a critique of change

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A recent SCAN Comment piece on Cartmel ‘running the risk’ of becoming an ‘International College’ created a miniature storm in Week 9, as readers rushed to condemn or (occasionally) defend its author, Yasmin Jaunbocus, and SCAN Comment’s editor, Paul Hannah. Apart from being excessively clumsy and factually inaccurate, the piece advocated the introduction of a policy setting a limit of ‘no more than two international student [sic] in every flat in every college.’ The purpose of such a policy was to ensure that ‘indigenous’ students retain a majority, and to force international students to ‘integrate’. Whatever the author’s intentions (Jaunbocus maintains her article was a critique of ‘segregation’), it is quite clear that such a policy would be racist. Indeed, the University could not institute such a policy, even if it desired to do so, since it would risk breaching the Race Relations Act of 1976.

My concern here, then, is not with such fantasy scenarios, nor with putting Jaunbocus and her editor on trial. What interests me more is that the article is one in a series that inadvertently points to an increasing unease amongst the student body about the restructuring of our university in the interests of profiteering. The other two pieces I’m thinking of are Hannah’s ‘Arts students are second class citizens’ (Nov 22nd) and April James’ ‘LUMS hoodies are a wedge in uni unity’ (Dec 2nd). The first argues that the Management School has unfairly superior careers advice facilities; the second that the Management School branded hoodies are a display of elitism and create inter-student rivalry.

Taken alongside Jaunbocus’s article, all three pieces exhibit anxiety and resentment toward the evidently better funded Management School and the privilege it exudes (after all, how could we ignore this when it is so visible, not only in the unending onslaught of admissions marketing, but in the semiotics of its every fibre?). However, the necessary context for making sense of this must be restored: namely, the restructuring of the University in response to the whole regime of changes to higher education brought about by New Labour and the ConDem government, of which budget cuts, the introduction of increased tuition fees, strict caps on student numbers and increased emphasis on rankings, are some of the most recent manifestations.

These changes have caused an increasingly narrowed focus on profitable subjects and courses, the most important of which, at Lancaster University, are the Masters courses in management and marketing. These courses can be taught very cheaply, and charged at top whack. They attract, principally, overseas students who will pay around £15,000 for a 12 month MSc course. Moreover, these students are usually unfamiliar with the area and, therefore, susceptible to a double exploitation: campus accommodation charged at overinflated rates. Thus, alongside the development of the management school, we’ve seen a corollary development of overpriced ‘luxury’ campus accommodation. In short, these students are being cynically used as cash-cows.

Meanwhile, the arts and humanities departments are another story. With no government funding for domestic undergraduates, and no tuition fees increase till 2012, teaching budgets are running on empty this year. Moreover, these subjects are favoured by home students, whose numbers are capped, blocking expansive growth. Even at postgraduate levels, where demographics are more mixed, these departments don’t typically attract the huge numbers of overseas students brought in by the Management School. As a result, this is not an area that allows the competitive level of growth necessary for the University to maintain its newly earned top-10 position in university league tables (the sole, and much flaunted, legacy of the emigrating VC Paul Wellings). For, whilst home postgraduate numbers are not capped, they are de facto limited by the difficulty of students’ being able to finance themselves, and profits are further limited by lower fees. Indeed, most recently the University, in its short-sighted drive for increased profits, has threatened to raise postgraduate fees, with taught MAs to be priced at £9000. Faced with criticism from students and staff that such a move would decimate home postgraduate admissions, the University management’s cynical response was simple: recruit and exploit international students more intensely. The worth of such rankings becomes clear: maintaining our place on paper means targeting top fee rates. It also means cuts to education, as Wellings recently argued in a letter to admin staff threatening department secretaries with redundancies (dated Nov 14th). Thus, we see that the drive for competitive rates of economic growth (and the rankings that go with this) also means a total refunctioning of the University, from being a place of learning to being a profit-making machine.

This is the ‘logic’ of a university driven by profit. The contradictions are everywhere to be seen, and are beginning to create real divisions and antagonisms on campus. This includes inter-student rivalry, resentment and potential racism, as these articles demonstrate. Instead of this we need an increased recognition amongst staff and students that these problems stem from a crisis of higher education driven by government cuts and the marketisation of our universities

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for better illustrating my intended point.

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