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After the tuition fees debates of last year, it seems that, very suddenly, students have been transformed into consumers. The spectre of £9000 a year fees certainly does not help; neither does the prospect of beginning your adult life burdened by debt. New concepts are already redefining and displacing what used to be known as ‘education’: the ‘student experience’, ‘student service’, ‘student satisfaction’ and getting ‘more for your money’ are all there in the literature of university prospectuses, internal reports, student election manifestos. Even before £7000 plus fees come in at Lancaster, university life has become a place of transaction. Rather than educating you, the university now promises to sell you, at the market price, the tools with which to build your professional life and generate enough income to pay back your student ‘investment’ (though, with millions unemployed and underemployed, that promise sounds a little hollow).
In this situation, the only questions left to us are, which service provider will provide the best customer service, and which the most exotic student experience? As a consumer, a petite entrepreneur competing against your peers for that elusive graduate job, you must claim for yourself the best your money can buy. Thus, you are positioned to ask only, ‘What is best for me?’, and to forsake all concern with what might be best for the student community as a whole and the student communities of the future. Besides, we have been assured by the powers that be that, based on the law of supply and demand, services can only, inexorably improve. The people, we are told, will express their indomitable will with the power of their feet, and, thus, though the mystical laws of competition, education will proceed to new pinnacles of previously unattainable quality. Unsurprisingly, however, for many students the university is experienced as an alien, temporary place that is not one’s own – particularly with regards to deciding how the university is run. That is to be left to specialist managers who are shipped in from corporations, just as the Government shipped in ex-BP chief Lord Browne to decide the overall direction UK higher education should take.
Politics seems to be a dirty word these days. But really it is the simple matter of people being able to make decisions about what will make life a bit better for all. In this context, what are the politics of students being excluded from the question of how much it is acceptable to charge for tuition and for housing? Are they not entitled to ask how the university manages its business and its investments, and whether or not these are ethically and environmentally responsible? Issues ranging from cutting the nurse’s unit, to the exploitation of postgraduate teaching assistants, to the overall direction of higher education, impact upon us personally, as well as impacting upon on our friends, our generation as a whole, and on the generations to come. But, as individuated consumers, how can we respond to these problems?
A first collective step may well be the ‘Week of Action’ being called by the NUS for Monday 12th until Friday 16th March. At universities across the country a variety of actions will take place ‘to demonstrate to VCs and principals that high fees, hidden course costs and a lack of bursaries are pricing students out of education, that postgraduate students need a better deal, and that students will not stand by and let the coalition government press ahead with its destructive plans to sell off and privatise our universities and colleges.’ Here at Lancaster a host of creative activities and workshops are planned on the 14th of March in Alexandra Square. Together, through imagination, art and fun, we might begin to figure out how to reclaim our education and our university.