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Tuition fees turn students into customers - that's bad news for learning

Tuition fees reflect the cultural drift towards the acquisition of money as the most important thing in life.

Another election; another proposed university policy to worry the academy. Academics are barely recovered from the coalition’s tuition fee hike, and now they’re having to decide what to make of Ed Miliband’s announcement that a Labour government would cut annual fees from £9,000 to £6,000.

With all the furore over whether Labour’s proposed cuts would be economically viable, there’s been troublingly little discussion of what it means that they’ll remain at all. It is, of course, a debate we’ve had before — but it’s worth having again. Tuition fees in the UK are the highest in Europe, although neither students nor their lecturers want this to be the case. The former oppose fees for obvious reasons— nobody wants to begin their working life with £44,000 of debt.

Indeed, today’s Financial Times reports analysis by Stephen Fisher, politics professor at the University of Oxford, which demonstrates the student vote has “tracked the generosity of party tuition fees” since 1997.

Lecturers’ opposition, however, is more complicated. Part of it is simply concern for their undergraduates, who they want to have as open an access to education as possible.  But as the front line — I’m tempted to say “customer facing” — component of the University, lecturers are also privy to how their students think about, and discuss, their courses. Tuition fees, they worry, can fundamentally undermine student participation. 

The danger with the fees model is it reduces the value of a degree to its subsequent financial benefits. Students increasingly evaluate their time at university by economic metrics, demanding transferrable skills, high employability ratings and favourable transcripts. Of course, none of these are unreasonable requests — except perhaps the last — and the increased resources which universities are putting into professional training and careers advice can only be a good thing. (This in stark contrast to the university lecturer, whose affective labour is priced as low as possible.) 

While it may only be fair that students demand certain things in return for their increased fees, however, the increasingly transactional mood in undergraduate classrooms is a worrying step. A growing focus on students getting their money’s worth means other aspects of degree study, like the chance to think experimentally, are put on the back burner — a particularly troublesome turn for more theoretical courses.

Back in 2008, the BBC reported claims that academics were under pressure to mark leniently, and even overlook plagiarism, to protect their employers’ place in the league tables. Lecturers in today’s job market might reasonably be less willing to speak out, but they do report a change in student attitudes. Standing on a UCU picket line in December of 2013, I had an undergraduate tell me he was crossing because, he’d calculated, each lecture cost him £200. The tactics of industrial action aside, it was a depressing moment.

One humanities lecturer tells me that he “didn’t know anyone” who took their £3,000 pounds of annual debt seriously. Now, following the national conversation about fees prompted by the raise to £9,000 under this government, his charges are highly conscious of the monetary tag attached to their education. He’s worried that students who increasingly feel like consumers will opt for more cautious module choices, prioritising a malleable CV over pursuing more niche academic interests. 

Others agree: Andy Kesson, Senior Lecturer in English at Roehampton, says many students hate thinking about the fee regime, but has noticed it’s made them “more conservative; less willing to think independently and more anxious to play safe”. Perversely, this may close down career options: I can’t be the only person who embarked on their current path due to a slightly left-field aspect of my university course. 

It’s hard to see this as anything other than the inevitable consequence of seeing students as consumers. Writing in the London Review of Books in November 2010, author and English Professor Stefan Collini lambasted the neoliberal logic which frames university courses in terms of whether they “meet business needs”. This way of looking at degrees, which gauges their value primarily — the cynical would say wholly — on their economic output is the same one which makes student fees appear reasonable. After all, if the point of the university is to fuel the economy, then it’s not too big a leap to suggest its most immediate beneficiaries pay in.

This is problematic not only because the financial rewards of a degree apply to wider society, rather than solely to graduates.

Quite aside from the practical consequences of saddling individuals with debt, it is fundamentally remiss to treat students as producers in the future rather than as learners now, with all the entitlement to intellectual exploration and uncertainty that that implies.

Even though the current framework is so hegemonic it convincingly presents itself as totalising, there are, as Collini’s book What Are Universities For? reminds us, other ways of conceptualising degree study — ones which value knowledge over productivity. As we revisit the question of fees, it’s important to remember that we have a choice in how we think about them. The question is ultimately this: do you believe the first duty of a degree course is to help students become productive members in the economy, or good thinkers?

 

 

 

 

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times