It’s no big secret, we’re all living in an ever more commercial society. The dividing line between the public and the private sector is becoming ever more blurred as the invisible hand is scooping up wider and wider parts of what were once untouchable cornerstones of our state. The National Health Service, the Welfare State and our Education system being the most recent to be opened up to marketisation.
When it comes to Education and our Universities, the warning signs have been there for some time, stemming back to the introduction of tuition fees in the UK back in 1998 but their impact is now only being truly realised. The rising cost of living combined with increasing tuition fees has created a shift in how students view their University education. A degree is now becoming another commodity measured by how much economic value we can extract from it. For many, a degree is simply a stepping stone into a high paid job, a box that needs to be ticked before you can get on with making a real living. More and more, we are looking at university like a service and the university staff as part of that service, instead of the academics that they are.
I confess, I myself have occasionally fallen afoul of this new commercial consensus. As one of the unlucky few that have to pay their yearly tuition fees up front, every lecture missed feels like money wasted. Every time I get frustrated with a tutor or a member of staff it feels like I’m receiving a sub-par service. It reminds me of an old cliché, a phrase often spoken indignantly to police officers on daytime TV shows that “my taxes pay your salary”, only in my case it’s my tuition fees in lieu of taxes.
It is for this reason that those advocating a move towards viewing university like a service see the growing commercialisation of university as a positive step. If it makes us go to lectures, makes us demand better of our tutors and university staff, makes us endeavour to get the most of university in order to get the most “value for money”, then surely it must be a positive change?
Indeed, there are areas within university life where we should be raising the money question. For example, the ever rising costs of student halls, despite frequent complaints about their value for money. Even off campus, life for students is becoming more expensive, as rents across the West End continue to rise, placing even more of a squeeze on finances. More and more, students are being asked to view university life on economic terms.
However, treating with our academic life on such ruthless, economically pragmatic terms leads us down a dangerous path. Instead of the allure of academic curiosity drawing us to our lectures, it’s instead the feeling of economic obligation. And like anyone with a job that they hate will tell you, a feeling of obligation only ends up breeding resentment. Another problem with such commercial thinking is that it causes students to, whether it be consciously or subconsciously, place a value our degree. If I were a prospective student with a passion for Philosophy, would I study that out of sheer love for the subject? Or would the feeling of getting “value for money” drive me clinically into a STEM degree? From personal experience, I was driven into a degree on such grounds - it didn’t end well at all. And therein lies the problem, the moment an economic rationale is introduced, the reason for entering academic life becomes undermined. For me, the choice of what to study needs to be purely academic and emotional. If we all were to apply economic rationalism to our degree choices then we would be studying Business and Economics with aims of landing a job in the London Stock Exchange. The picture only becomes more confused with the fact that tuition fees are not the same for all students. For example, is an international student paying possibly tens of thousands of pounds more entitled to complain about sub-par teaching than a Scottish student who pays nothing in fees?
This is not to say we should accept university life at it is. We certainly should be looking at our academic experience with a critical eye. But it should be done with the aim to create the best environment to thrive academically, not just because we’re feeling like we’re not getting our money’s worth.
So yes, demand better of your university staff; go to your more of your lectures, make, as the brochures say, “the most of your university experience”. But don’t do it out of economic obligation, do it because you’re passionate about your subject. University is and should remain, a place for academic study above all else.