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Save our universites: education before commerce

Students fear for their future education

On 9 December, students and lecturers stood beside each other on Parliament Square in the freezing cold. £9k. The cuts had been ratified and Higher Education had been pushed into the marketplace, no longer deemed a public benefit, now a private accessory.

But something else began there, or at least, something that had started many months before began to gain momentum. If we’re all in it together now, where will we be in two years time? What happens when we pay, in near entirety, for our education?

The calculators are going to come out again, as they have done many times so far. “This lecture has cost me £143.76! It was surely only worth £75 at most! I demand redemption!” A degree will be an investment and a step on a career ladder that will have very definitive monetary value attached to it. Demands will increase, and the supply of a service of education will need to match it.
This is the marketplace after all. Lecturers will become service providers. Suddenly the collegiality is replaced with this business-relationship. The future of higher education has been described as ‘student-led’, but what does this mean? What does this mean for these collegial relationships, for the campus ‘bubble’, for academic freedom? I’ve debated this with myself many times over. I took an argument to a committee I sit on called the Council Review Group, which reviews the format of the highest governing body of the university. 

It said: “Look, post-Browne, we’re now in an environment where students are the biggest stakeholders, and thus students deserve a much bigger role in governance”.  The result was a move to include a postgraduate student representative on Council.

Previously, the Union President had been the sole student. More student representation and specific representation for a group that have previously found difficulty in getting their voice heard at Sussex – surely a great thing right? But it came at a cost. The new student place was taken from the pool of academic and professional services staff representatives.

Suddenly I remembered a brief argument between Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary, and Ed Marsh, NUS Vice President, that had happened across me as I chaired a discussion on the future of higher education in October. Ed had started complaining of falling contact hours and front-line service, concerns I’ve heard from many here at Sussex. Sally replied instantly and vehemently: “Don’t go down that road”.  You could see the vulnerability in the national relationship between the staff and student unions.

There will be increasing complaints about contact hours and direct service. Staff will have far more demand on them to mark work more quickly, to spend more time with students and all of this as they are now set to do far more administrative and pastoral work as widespread cutbacks are being made to student support and administration.

Furthermore, here at Sussex, Senators managed to fight off a proposal from university management which tried to push through a paper that would have meant tutors unable to hit consistently high research targets would go to disciplinary and would eventually be sacked.

The demands are growing both for teaching and for research, and of course, if tutors were to spend many more hours trying to save their jobs by hitting research targets, then how long do they have to prepare their teaching? How much time will they have to share a coffee and discuss the trepidations of their students?

After all, they’re going to be timed and calculated upon by their students now, and performance-managed by their heads of schools. Is this the right atmosphere for studying, learning, teaching and researching? This world of targets and ‘Key-Performance Indicators’ is the infrastructure for a privatised training programme, not a university. So is student-led learning better for us as students?

Well, it will certainly lead to greater levels of bureaucracy and administration that will in turn lead to standardisation and regulation of the contact time and levels of service that we wanted in the first place. It is my belief that we need to take each step together, instead of beginning an institutional battle between students and lecturers in which the middle and senior managers that have previously stood back in the face of cutbacks end up stepping in to mediate.

We need to remain focused on our idea of education, of a collegial, publicly and socially beneficial education. I believe that another student on Council is the right thing and that students do need to be given a louder voice. But we need to be careful where we draw the line.Recent months have been a perfect time for the application of philosophical thought on to ‘real life’ (whatever that is). Surely everyone in the country must have spent, at the very least, a few seconds asking themselves, “What is education?” How does it relate to society? How does it relate to the individual? So, let’s have no ‘leaders’ of learning, lets avoid going down the road to individualism and bureaucracy and remember what education is and why it is a social, collegial activity.

If we never forget that, then we can start to rebuild our university, rather than simply exacerbate what can only be described as ‘market trends’. We need to take the next step in this student-staff partnership by supporting our lecturers and academic staff in strike action, standing by our colleagues that are taking action to save education.

We recognise industrial action might affect courses and classes in the short term, but the goal is much greater than an extra lecture or seminar; the goal is a higher education system that values education before commerce, that values students and lecturers as free academic agents, not customers and service providers. If industrial action, as part of a wider anti-cuts strategy, is not taken now, we risk losing even more lecturers, courses and even departments.

We are all in it together, after all.

Cameron Tait is the President of the Students’ Union at the University of Sussex (2010-11)

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