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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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit