by Robyn Banks

As you’ve probably heard, the Queen visited the UEA last week. The visit quickly became the biggest marketing opportunity that UEA has seen in many years. Tourists, students and local residents turned up to feel the buzz of the monarch’s presence on campus, and UEA jumped at the chance to publicise all the ‘amazing’ work it’s doing.

When the spotlight is shone on our institution on occasions like this, we must take the opportunity to cast some light on its shadier practices as well. The university expects the campus population to expand by around 1500 over the next three years, but as the new term began in January it was revealed that they haven’t managed to take into account that these students will need somewhere to live. Their response to this is to create bunk-bed rooms for students to live in without actually increasing the size of the rooms themselves. And this negligence comes at a time of rising accommodation fees across campus. Rent is set to go up 3.4% over the next 3 years, ahead of inflation. This will produce an annual surplus of millions – a sure sign that the University is putting profit before the needs of its students.

The failed power plant cost the university 10 million pounds to build

Speaking of ripping off students, the university has also opted into the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Through questionable metrics drawing on the National Student Survey, among other things, TEF ranks higher education providers according to a dubious measure of teaching quality. As an ‘incentive’ for improving quality (read ‘conforming better to largely arbitrary criteria’), universities that rank highly will be allowed to raise their tuition fees, potentially up to £10k or more by 2020.

UEA consistently argue that these various attempts to dig deeper into the pockets of students are necessary to maintain the institution’s high standards. Sounds nice, but it’s hard to believe that coming from a university that pays its Vice-Chancellor a salary of more than £250k, and spends extraordinary amounts of money on self-aggrandising projects like the disastrous campus biomass incinerator. The failed power plant cost the university 10 million pounds to build and has never worked for more than 30 minutes. It now serves as a convenient store room for its Christmas decorations.


A new bunk-bed room at UEA. Photo credit: Concrete Student Newspaper

The university claims that throwing money at unproven initiatives like this is an important part of its continued ‘commitment’ to help tackle climate change. And yet, at the same time UEA refuses to take simple actions to cut ties to the fossil fuel industry by ending investments in companies like BHP Billiton, which wreak environmental destruction while trampling on human rights. This refusal is in spite of a 3 year campaign for divestment by People and Planet UEA which has attracted the support of thousands of students and staff. Apparently that commitment to environmentalism only applies when the university can attach it to some groundbreaking project that will provide it with good publicity and boost its institutional ego.

By combining the surplus from campus rents with the VC’s paycheck and the money wasted on the biomass scheme, UEA could instead have paid for up to 1,200 students to come and study for free on a scholarship, actually going some way to fulfilling its constant claims that it is committed to providing for less-well-off prospective students. And that’s not even counting the millions more spent on the failed Generation Park project.

future students from more normal backgrounds are having to choose between taking on mountains of debt, or letting their dreams of a fulfilling higher education die

Unfortunately, events like a visit from Britain’s biggest tourist attraction give the university a chance to cover up these failings-bordering-on-abuses and show off its good side to the world. I already had many issues with the monarchy (in case you’re wondering, the £370 million recently granted for the refurb of Buckingham Palace could have funded over 41,000 scholarships for new students), and now I have another to add to the list. Last week the queen’s presence unwittingly promoted an institution which is actively pursuing the marketisation of education, and whose attitude to mistakes is to cover them up and hope no-one notices.

Of course, the real villains here are UEA, not the monarchy, although in a perfect world the queen could help students a great deal by speaking out against these practices. Sure, none of the royal family will ever have to worry about student fees or the associated debt, but many future students from more normal backgrounds are having to choose between taking on mountains of debt, or letting their dreams of a fulfilling higher education die. Our institution is not only happy to allow this to happen, but also looks to profit from it. We have a responsibility to speak out about this, queen or no queen.

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