Students are right to be angry and I salute those who have taken that anger as a spur to collective action to organise rent strikes and demand better support packages at a time when the uncertainties and tolls of the pandemic are severely disrupting their ability to study and complete assessments. Those students who are already disproportionately disadvantaged by an unequal education system – students of colour, trans students, students with disabilities, working-class students – are feeling the brunt once again.
Those students who are already disproportionately disadvantaged by an unequal education system – students of colour, trans students, students with disabilities, working-class students – are feeling the brunt once again.
It is a similar picture for staff, who have had to contend with numerous obstacles in doing their jobs: unsafe working conditions; the threat of redundancy; additional and often unrecognised, unremunerated work in preparing at short notice with adequate support for ‘blended learning’ on top of already excessive workloads; home-schooling and other caring duties while expected to be working full-time; often indecisive senior management too craven to stand up to a government determined to remake the sector into a vehicle exclusively for the advancement of the already wealthy.
No amount of mitigation packages, rent refunds, or tuition reductions will remedy this problem. They are sticking plasters for a broken system whose wounds are gaping open.
The marketisation of education
The root cause of all these problems, which affect students, staff, and society alike, is the marketisation of education. The creation of competition in the sector – eagerly greeted by vice-chancellors, who saw an opportunity for personal gain or were ideologically naïve at best – has led universities into the snares of ‘rentierisation’ to the extent that the demands of revenue generation outstrip any well-intentioned concern for learning and well-being. No longer primarily in the business of educating students, universities have become landlords.
The introduction of a fee regime and the underfunding of education by central government has left management trying to lure international students by outbidding one another inexpensive vanity construction projects and racking up costly loans that need to be serviced through (overpriced) accommodation income and all those equally overpriced Prets and Starbucks on campus.
This is why Brett Christophers’ point about our moralising distaste for rentiers is spot-on: the problem isn’t so much that such profits are unearned and thus undeserved (which sidelines the critique of other forms of capitalist accumulation as if they were more deserving) but that its monopoly power gives rentier capital less incentive to innovate and increased leverage over labour, increasing inequality.
The renewed focus in the latest proposed reforms on employability and on making the capitalist class the arbiters of what constitutes ‘quality’ in education reflects a miserly and severely limited view of what education is.
This has all been engineered to ensure that universities play their part in concentrating wealth, but that is incompatible with the aspiration to foster in students a deeper intellectual curiosity and the capacity to develop a questioning, critical approach to the world around them. The renewed focus in the latest proposed reforms on employability and on making the capitalist class the arbiters of what constitutes ‘quality’ in education reflects a miserly and severely limited view of what education is. So too is the assault on the humanities and on the ‘cultural Marxists’ that supposedly make up the ranks of university teaching staff (if only!)
The delirious rants about ‘wokeness’, straight out of the Trumpist playbook, would be merely laughable if it weren’t for the quite deliberate violence that this government inflicts on people of colour, not least through an approach to exams that disadvantages already marginalised students, as the Russell Group is set yet again to expand its places at the expense of post-92 institutions.
The repressive university
The incoherent attacks on critical race theory or Foucault aren’t simply an insouciant display of ignorance but a cynical ploy to undermine the intellectual underpinnings for a critique of structural racism. Likewise, the hyperbolic discourse on free speech and cancel culture, including the lamentable capitulations of both my alma mater and my current institution under government pressure, are designed precisely to silence those who already have scarcely any voice while bestowing legitimacy on those who have no interest in the debate, contestation, and correction of ideas that constitute academic freedom. On top of Prevent legislation, these conditions are rapidly turning universities into instruments of an oppressive state.
The incoherent attacks on critical race theory or Foucault aren’t simply an insouciant display of ignorance but a cynical ploy to undermine the intellectual underpinnings for a critique of structural racism.
The other problem with marketisation is the way in which it has negatively altered the relationship between teacher and student. It is no surprise that, in some quarters, students (as well as some liberal higher-education commentators and plenty of astroturfers) are framing their demands in the language of consumer rights, for they have actively been treated as consumers.
This is a somewhat thornier issue for the Left. No doubt when I argue against this framing, students will hear that I want to deprive them of their voice. Far from it: treating them as consumers devalue their voices. Members of the Socialist Campaign Group have been calling online teaching ‘daylight robbery’ as if the problem lay in an exceptional drop in the quality of teaching rather than in the fact that education is a public good and therefore should be free to all throughout their lifetimes, regardless of pandemics.
The messaging is worryingly confusing, often failing to make a crucial distinction with rent refunds, which are a progressive demand. Without a clear rallying cry for abolition, rather than the temporary cancellation or reduction, of tuition fees, there is a risk of reinforcing the reactionary common sense of neoliberalism that turns every learner (and teacher) into a consumer, competitor, and self-made entrepreneur who desires their own subjection and is reducible to performance metrics.
This is not to say that students cannot recognise good teaching, but at the time of their studies they are not well positioned to assess the full extent of their impact on them and will not be for some time to come. Students are not consumers, if only for the reason that an education that yields satisfaction would not be worthy of the name.
Students are not consumers, if only for the reason that an education that yields satisfaction would not be worthy of the name.
Perhaps it is too cynical to suggest that the government, fearful that education is a prophylactic against the lures of conspiracy theories and right-wing authoritarianism, is in the business of socially engineering demoralised working classes, a petty-bourgeoisie whose anger can be channelled into ethno-nationalism, and a buoyant rentier fraction. But with stark generational and educational cleavages reshaping our political landscape, the demand for publicly funded lifelong education for all has never been more urgent.
The pandemic should have been taken as an opportunity for universities to fight back and reverse this downwards spiral rather than entrench a model that is profoundly antithetical to their mission. It is clear there will not be leadership from a management in thrall to Westminster and that sees two enemies whose wrath is to be managed and set upon one another. Students and staff need to come together in solidarity to seize the opportunity to remake the future of higher education.