Last summer, as students tried to decide whether to stay at home or go to the campus for the first term of the academic year, they were told they would receive “blended learning”, and were offered the “hope that everything would be as normal as possible”.
But when the course started, it rapidly became clear that there would be little or no in-person teaching, and they were ordered to stay in their halls of residence. Now, with the latest lockdown, students have been asked not to return.
Unsurprisingly, students are protesting. Rent strikes have been organised, which have succeeded in getting a reduction on the first term’s rent, and Student Action for a Fair and Educated Response (Safer) has been set up to campaign for fee reductions. A striking part of their argument is the way they frame their case: we are consumers, you are a business, you are selling us a product. We therefore demand, as consumers do, money back and compensation for unsatisfactory service. “If you’re selling a commodity, we have consumers’ rights,” says Cathy Wippell, a third-year student at Manchester and a founder of Safer. “It should,” she says, “have been very apparent they were promising something they couldn’t deliver.” “We were lied to,” says another, “and then expected to produce the same quality of work while also paying the same amount of money for sub-standard experience. Especially when we pay rent for accommodation we were specifically told not to live in.”
“The crisis is to do with the commodification of education,” says Wippell. “If it had been free” – if fees had been fully paid by government as in the past – “we wouldn’t have been asked to go back to university.” “A lot of students have realised that we really are being exploited for profit,” says Finley Gore, a first-year who is helping to organise a rent strike. The university’s business model depends on income from fees and rent, they argue, so they didn’t want students to stay away and defer their courses. The resulting “Covid bath”, says Wippell, wasn’t only a danger to students: “students’ families were put at risk, and the people of Manchester. If money hadn’t been a factor that wouldn’t have happened.”
And beyond the battles over budgets and contracts there is a culture shock, the belief that a university’s spirit of open inquiry cannot be subjected to the mechanisms of corporations.
“We’re in a condition of managerialist realism, beyond which we can’t think,” says Michael Hrebeniak, director of studies in English at Wolfson College, Cambridge. “An obsession with the business discourse of procedure, training and skills has eroded the trust in freewheeling encounter that is crucial to the life of the mind.” A professor of architecture says: “We have to sit through lectures of flow diagrams on how the new structure works. It’s like tractor production quotas in the USSR.” Academics complain of the disappearance of trust, which they say was fundamental to the way they worked, and its replacement by measurement and monitoring.
Critics of the current arrangements often look back to the time before loans and fees, in the 70s and 80s, when the state paid both your fees and a maintenance grant. “I came from a background where people did not go to university,” the architecture professor tells me, “and it did far more than provide me with my career. It enriched my life.” Now, he says, “with the debt that students end up in, the question ‘will I get a job?’ becomes the frame through which education is looked at. It makes them much less likely to take the kind of risks that are experimental in terms of finding new knowledge.”