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It’s hard to believe UK students pay the hallowed £9,000 per year price tag for their degrees. It is safe to say that the fees have had a massive impact upon the experience of students. What it all boils down to, as many writers have picked up in the past, is that it has created a consumerist culture among students, eager to maximise their return on investment in two ways: firstly, in getting the most out of their courses, and secondly, in getting a good graduate job when all is said and done. It is almost as if university in general, not just Lancaster, has become a job shop, where students trade in a portion of their future earnings in return for an education that will hopefully end in the achievement of landing their dream graduate job – with endless amounts of deadlines and exam stress in between, and a healthy portion of “networking” and “employability exercises” thrown in for good measure.
Whilst it is obviously important to put ourselves in the best position possible to land our graduate gig, I can’t help but feel that students (myself included) are guilty of using university as a means to an end rather than enjoying our degrees. That is not to say that people do not enjoy their time at university, as I am sure that endless photos on the Sugarhouse Facebook page will confirm. However, I feel that the fees create an anxiety and a consumerist mind-set that would not exist if university did not seem like such an extravagant spend. Instead of taking risks with their essays, engaging with and enjoying their work, students seem to have one thing on their mind – the grade they get in return. Whilst you could argue that even if our degrees were free, we would continue to seek the holy grail of grades, it can be said that the anxiety of getting a bad grade is two-fold – a bad grade will lead to a bad degree and a waste of money, and that in turn, this will lead to a “lesser” job, making our “investment” seem like even more of a waste.
But this culture does not merely stop at the grades we achieve; it applies to all manner of things, from lecturer strikes to laundry costs, to printing and more. With every cancelled lecture, I see more and more students argue that “I didn’t pay £9,000 for this”, and despite being largely unaffected I find myself in a bit of a pickle, tending to agree that, no we didn’t pay £9,000 for this, but wanting to support my lecturers regardless, but then again not wanting to miss lectures that aren’t cancelled for fear of yet again ruining my investment.
And the same applies to all manner of things in the University. The library opening for 24 hours is testament to the demands of the University’s new customers, and the culture of staff/student committees being fuelled with requests from the student body is rife. Group work, when it goes badly, becomes the bane of a student’s life – again because you feel that people are again sabotaging your “investment”.
And then there’s the job centre mentality that comes as a by-product of this, as nobody wants to end up doing a job they could have done without their degree after lining the government’s pockets with their coming wages. And whilst I cannot fault some of the admirable things people do as part of their Lancaster Award or in society activities, I cannot help but wonder if their virtue is misplaced and whether they’d really be doing that if they didn’t think it would unlock the gates to graduate job heaven. I’m sure plenty of students really do want to make a difference, and to those to which that applies, I salute you. However, I cannot help but despair at how even our leisure time has become deeply rooted in showing employability skills, and that it is not enough to be merely a member of the Yorkshire Pudding Appreciation Society or the Lancaster University Rocking Horse Club, but one has to be the treasurer or the president.
The bottom line is that university should be a time to discover ourselves both in an academic and a personal sense. Every decision from module choosing to which society to join or activity to participate in should not merely be premised on thinking what will maximise our job opportunities and therefore investment – but sadly it does. Whilst there is a strong case that the job-centric nature of university would have been there without the fees due to the competitiveness to get onto graduate schemes, you could say that the fees are to blame for exacerbating our tendency to moan at almost every decision the University takes which will make our wallets a little lighter or damage our education. Of course it is fine to fight for the best education possible, as I regularly do in LUMS staff/student committee meetings, but ask yourself next time you put something to your reps or campaign yourself: is it the actual education you are worried about, or the fact that your nine grand will be going to waste if you don’t get the grade you want?