Can’t pay? We’ll take your degree away

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Credit: Rhiannon Doherty

Emily Hay
Books Columnist

The University of Liverpool’s recent academic sanctions are yet another example of how students are predominantly seen as customers.

Last week, news broke that the University of Liverpool had been imposing academic sanctions such as blocking students from accessing their university emails, denying them access to the library and halting them from graduating for failing to pay their halls of residence rent on time. You may be thinking that there is nothing wrong with this, that in the real world of adulthood there are serious consequences for missed bill or rent payments – non-student debt is no small matter.

Yet, when instances of these academic sanctions were investigated it was found that one student had had their library card and student account suspended for a rent payment only one day late as the result of direct debit mix up. Another was charged £10 for a replacement room key after losing her own, but rather than adding the fee to her next rent instalment she was sent a letter threatening being blocked from the library and the uni’s online learning portal if she didn’t make the payment within two weeks. Is this the price that is being put on our education and our future? Is a measly £10 admin fee really that crucial to a big university’s bank balance?

The answer is no. To anyone at university – particularly if you study in England or are paying £9000 a year tuition here at Glasgow – the notion that higher education is a product to be bought isn’t exactly a new one. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that universities haven’t been marketized for a long time now; in the 21st century learning is a commodity, and one which we often have to pay through the nose for. The UCU teaching strikes which took place last year across the country, particularly prominently here at UofG, proved beyond all doubt that teachers and students are no longer seen as such by those at the heads of our institutions: we are now respectively commodities and customers.

Yet, Liverpool have now moved one step further. While there was once some semblance of caring about students and the financial strain that higher education can put them under, with hardship funds and scholarships available, these instances unequivocally serve to tell students that they’re on their own financially. Official statistics from the University of Liverpool stated that in 2017, 687 students were put under academic sanctions for missed rent – these students were then twice as likely to have to resit their exams and 12.9% less likely to complete the year and move onto the next. A cruel and unusual punishment which doesn’t quite fit the crime. They had paid their tuition fees yet were barred from accessing the educational services which their tuition was helping to fund. Liverpool has responded to the reports by highlighting the financial support they offer students from low-income backgrounds – yet, none of the students placed under these academic sanctions were offered help or payment plans before they were barred from university services. Can’t pay? We’ll take it away. Except now, rather than some trashy poverty porn tv show, this is the state of our education.

Back in 2017, the Competitions and Market Authority (CMA) ruled that universities had no right to impose academic sanctions, such as barring students from graduating, for non-academic debt. Yet Liverpool – as well as potentially other universities – have been continuing to do just that, with a number of students already threatened over late rent payments this month. Since the reports came to light Liverpool have released a statement stating that their policy on academic sanctions is under review and that they are in talks with the Liverpool Guild of Students over changes to the policy. But this seems to come too late – the damage may already be done. Students at Liverpool have already seen that their wellbeing means so much less to their university than their financial value. A certain kind of trust has been broken, one which won’t be easy to win back. And the repercussions of this report aren’t just confined to the University of Liverpool. If a Russell Group university has proven that it cares so little about its students, then how long do those of us at other institutions, such as Glasgow, have before we’re also cast aside as merely a pile of pound signs? Do we really have any security or assurance from our own university that it sees us as more than just zeros on its bank balance? I’m not so sure that we do.

First they came for the students with tuition fee increases, then they came for the teaching staff with pay freezes, and now they’ve come for the students again with this – the latest in a long line of financial policies chipping away at our education. They don’t appear to value our minds like the dream the prospectuses sold us. In our late-capitalist nightmare the poor are given the illusion of equal opportunity with these barriers lurking just beneath the surface: “Go to university to increase your income potential! Oh, but make sure you pay your extortionate rent on time or we’ll take our education back.” Something must be done. All universities which claim to be on the side of their students must not only be sure to avoid Liverpool’s money grabbing ways but must openly condemn such institutions which put rent and admin fees above the welfare of their student population.

If you’re not with us, you’re against us – don’t sacrifice your students, and therefore your future, for your minimal financial gains.