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.

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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 head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.