by Lewis Martin

In a recent article for the Guardian, UEA SU CEO Jim Dickinson wrote about universities’ failure to produce anything satisfactory for its students, as well as the lack of transparency around how tuition fees are spent. Helpful though it is to point out the issues faced by the student movement, Dickinson fails to offer any type of remedy for them at any point, suggesting that cynical resignation is the only possible response.

In fairness, Dickinson does make a lot of valid points surrounding the effect of the marketisation of education. The tripling of tuition fees has seen many students’ focus shift from the learning and research opportunities university provides to the value for money they receive in lectures and seminars. This has led to a collapse in student satisfaction, with recent results showing it as low as 37% nationally. His criticisms of the lack of transparency from universities are also entirely justified, and all too familiar. We constantly see universities avoid answering questions surrounding their policy. At UEA, they repeatedly refuse to engage with student demands surrounding the fossil free campaign and their budget for mental health services on campus. Universities and the government are failing abysmally to make universities work for all students, and to keep them as places of learning rather than businesses.

However, simply pointing out familiar issues brings little to the debate, and doesn’t help in solving them. We need action from union staff like Dickinson, who are in a powerful position to help combat attacks on higher education. This power should be used to the benefit of the movement which they are a part of.

Students have proven time and again that they can make effective change to their universities

They might, for example, get behind boycotting the National Student Survey, which is being used to help raise fees and fuel the Teaching Excellence Framework as it drives the marketisation of education forward. This has been a topic of hot debate, but to do otherwise only builds the repository of information that universities and the government use to raise fees. There has been notable success already in the boycott’s first year, with 9 universities confirming that their results are invalid due to boycotts, and the House of Lords passing an amendment cutting the link between the TEF and tuition fees.

Despite Dickinson’s pessimism, the boycott is the latest proof that university Vice Chancellors and their management teams do not have a monopoly on the power to change higher education. Students have proven time and again that they can make effective change to their universities by running campaigns and holding VC’s to account.

We know that, behind closed doors, university managers call students “consumers” or “customers”, and see us as individual bags of money instead of being a collective group whose needs they have a responsibility to help meet. We defy this picture. Students are not consumers. We are people, who have come from a variety of backgrounds to achieve the goal of learning in our fields.


Many students feel more positive about the movement than Dickinson. Credit: Fransisco Osorio

There is more than just a “reasonable argument”, as Dickinson puts it, that seeing students as consumers is dangerous. The experiences faced by some academics make this uncomfortably clear. The ideology that students are consumers has fundamentally changed the student-teacher relationship for many people. Academics find themselves working with students who no longer respect them for their knowledge, but as a retailer who should offer a return the fees they pay in the form of a mark that they deem their work worthy of. As one academic predicts, “all universities are going to need a customer services department before long”.

Dickinson’s comparison between universities and driving schools plays into this ideology. An education is not a commercial service like any other. A degree is not a product like anything you buy on the high street – it forms the basis for a lifetime of potential situations. There is a telling inconsistency here: whilst student satisfaction ratings may be important to Dickinson, he is happy to still view students as consumers of higher education’s products. These comparisons undermine his otherwise admirable argument for reduced marketisation of education. It would once have seemed absurd for someone so embedded in the student movement to think that the student experience is comparable to that of a customer in any old high street transaction – no longer, apparently.

At the end of the day, actions speak much louder than words. Many movements have managed to achieve much more with direct action then they have by writing articles (I’m aware of the irony of my own position here; I try to mitigate it by regularly taking part in direct action relating to the topics I write about). The primary goal of CEOs of SUs up and down the country is to ensure the smooth running of the union, but as in this case they often seem to forget that their unions are entirely political entities, built upon the political action of others that secured them the right to exist. Writing articles like Dickinson’s, pointing out the issues without suggesting how to fight back, won’t inspire change.

Featured image courtesy of Hansika Jethnani

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