Three-D Issue 17: Inside out: turning consumers back into students

Milly Williamson
Brunel University

Last summer was marked by widespread student protests at the attack on higher education and the plans to raise the cap on student fees to £9,000. But despite the widespread public anger at the cuts in public spending across the public sector, the coalition government is determined to push ahead an ill-informed and chaotic agenda for higher education. Alongside our support for protests, what can we, as academics in departments up and down the country do to resist this attack on universities in our daily activities?

Firstly we need to be clear about nature of the attack. This is not a money-saving exercise. The coalition government declared that the plan to remove the block grant that has supported teaching to higher education was part of its plans to cut public expenditure. But it has now become clear that the loan system which is to replace the block grant is actually going to be more expensive. This is partly a miscalculation on the part of the government whose initial capital expenditure estimate was based on universities charging average fees of £7,500. It was hardly a surprise to those working in higher education that most vice chancellors would set fees at the higher end of the maximum, with many setting the maximum fee of £9,000. This miscalculation serves to highlight the real intention behind this rushed-through legislation (which was actually presented to the Commons vote six months prior to the publication of the White paper that, under normal parliamentary procedure, should have preceded the drawing up of legislation). The real purpose of this legislation is to do with money – but not in the sense the government would have us believe. It is an ideological attack on the purpose of higher education and on the social role of learning as it is understood in academia – to expand and enrich our understanding of the world in a manner that is properly independent and autonomous from the pressures of powerful interests and to introduce students to the processes of inquiry. Instead this legislation aims to reorient higher education to serve the needs of industry and to subordinate learning to the pursuance of economic growth.

This has been the Conservative agenda for higher education since Thatcherism, disappointingly adopted by Labour, and it has been pushed by various measures which are surely disciplinary in the Foucauldian sense. The NSS is the latest of the ‘targets’ measures introduced to have a disciplinary effect on academics and other university staff.  Where previous disciplinary measures, such as the Research Assessment Exercise and the Teaching Quality Assessment were to a significant extent subverted from within, the NSS sits more snugly with the government’s real intention in increasing students loans and removing the block grant, which is to make universities more responsive – not to students – but to government. The coalition government is using the idea of the student-as-consumer under the rubric of ‘consumer choice’ to force universities into line with government objectives. The language of ‘student choice’ and ‘student satisfaction’ is a rhetorical device – saddling students with debts of £30,000 is hardly an empowering move.

Alongside the campaigns and protests we are involved in, we can also resist this attack from the inside. We do our students a great disservice if we accept the government ideology and come to view them as ‘consumers’ instead of young citizens pursuing intellectual development and discovery. We must take every opportunity to redefine the student experience away from an ill-defined short term notion of ‘satisfaction’ towards the long term satisfaction that comes from encountering intellectual challenges and deepening knowledge and understanding. No doubt over the next few months we will all find ourselves in departmental meetings discussing ways of improving NSS scores. We can try to refocus these discussions away from ever more popular superficial proposals and towards reiterating our role as educators and the importance of a relationship of trust with those we educate. Our students are not our customers. We are our students’ guides on their voyage of discovery, and trust (which the government proposals are designed to undermine) is an essential ingredient in the process. Alongside protesting on the ‘outside’ we need to continue to subvert the language ‘consumer choice’ from the ‘inside’ and expose the agenda of academic subservience it is designed to conceal.

Posted by Einar Thorsen