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All Power to the Students?

The Coalition plans to put "students at the heart of the system" with its higher education reforms. But the White Paper proposals would lead to the disempowerment of students, re-modeling them as consumers of education, no longer part of the learning process
James Haywood
9 July 2011

There are some irritating things to be woken up by in the morning; dustbin men having a chinwag in the loudest possible voice, foxes tearing up bin liners. But David Willets declaring on national radio that universities should not be considered part of the public sector? That was definitely the worst wake up call ever.

So when the Coalition announces that “student power” is the hallmark of the new White Paper, this context should be kept in mind. The other context should be the previous six months of state repression meted out to the student movement: over 200 arrests (including dawn house raids), the vicious use of kettling of protestors, horse charges, and, in the case of student Alfie Meadows, beaten within an inch of his life by riot police on the day the fees were voted through.

So does the White Paper somehow constitute a sudden change of heart by the government? The answer is a big No. Under the misleading term of “student empowerment” the White Paper confirms the ideological attack on Higher Education which started under New Labour and has now been codified under the present government, who are determined to turn students into consumers. From being developed into critical, intellectual, independent-t­­hinking citizens, the role of students is to be transformed into passive receivers of information, and for a large price-tag as well. The concept of universities as autonomous centres of free thinking and critical research has been further eroded, and our institutions are every day looking more like hubs for apprentices, another strip of the conveyor belt for creating skilled workers for the economy.

The Coalition plans to put “students at the heart of the system” by loading them with tens of thousands of pounds of debt and limiting what they can study through cuts that are likely to see a large number of arts and humanities departments closing down. As much as recent British governments want to obsessively quantify learning so it can fit into neat statistics to constantly prove “success”, learning and education simply do not fit into this utilitarian agenda.

For example, one of the proposed student “empowerment” processes this White Paper will put in place is to force institutions to publish the amount of contact hours a student will get for a course. In and of itself this is not a problem, but since it is tied to the neo-liberal agenda of students as customers, it utterly skewers the meaning of education since the quality of learning cannot be quantified by how many contact hours a student receives.

So how best to make sure that students are “satisfied”? A start could be to listen to them when they march in their thousands, not set riot police on them. Or enact key manifesto pledges directed at students, not lie and do the complete opposite. I will never forget attending the 2010 National Union of Students conference, when leaders of the three main parties broadcast an election message to the delegates. When Nick Clegg announced that his party would fight any rise in fees, the eight hundred delegates erupted into applause and cheers. The fact that the Liberal Democrats were planning to drop this flagship policy before the election had even taken place is all the more astonishing.

We also need to democratise our institutions so that rather than seeing universities as providers of commodities, students feel part of an educational establishment that can be shaped as they learn. Paul Ramsden, founder of the Higher Education Academy, recently rejected the White Paper’s vision of students as “customers” but argued instead we should be seen as “partners”. Problems to do with courses or teaching can be resolved within the institution if the student is at the “heart of the system”. But the very fact that this White Paper proposes stronger auditing, and student “empowerment” through agencies such as HEFCE and the QAA, merely proves how disempowering the “consumer” model is to students. We will no longer be part of the learning process, just a receiver of it.

Hence also the dangers of the Key Information Sets (KIS) which will bombard prospective students with statistics, from contact hours to itemized National Student Survey results. This utilitarian approach to education is bizarre and dangerous. Students choose universities for a million and one different reasons: location, size, intellectual interests, course content, reputation, staff, alumni and many more. Influencing student choice to be based on a “comparethemarket.com” style approach could be devastating for academia. Students should choose universities and courses based on their intellectual and educational interests and motivations, not a “bang for your buck” judgment. Of course there should be quality standards and information available about the varying levels of this quality, but there is categorically no evidence, as the National Union of Students have pointed out, that this inter-competition of stats between institutions will improve teaching quality.

The broader theme of this legislation is to encourage an attitude among students of scepticism, hostility almost, towards the university. “Powers” to demand an inspection of “unsatisfactory” universities, ratings of individual lecturers, and HEFCE transformed from a funding body to a Higher Education Ofsted are all signs of this. Perhaps to attract customers and to keep them happy, universities will begin a "the customer is always right" policy – first class degrees guaranteed! It is hard to predict where this chasm could take us. Will students be suing universities for poor grades? Will campus unions be de-recognised since industrial action affects customer (student) satisfaction? The possibilities are indeed bleak if this process is allowed to go ahead unopposed.

At Goldsmiths we have proven how standards and quality at an institution can be improved. Through our Students’ Union campaigns, from protests to occupations to sitting on academic committees, we have won the opening of the library 24 hours a day, an enhanced feedback policy regarding student essays, a brand-new e-learning infrastructure and have reversed attempts to close down the on-campus nursery – and that is to name but a few from just last year. This was achieved by asserting that students are a part of the institution, and therefore senior management should address our concerns as equals – partners in the educational process. We also organised a teach-in with our academics: an entire day of lectures and seminars on the theme of “the alternative”. This was designed not just to consider the alternative to fees and cuts but to develop an alternative, democratic notion of higher education itself.

Far from delivering student power, what this legislation proves is how badly the student movement has lost the argument over higher education. After more than a decade of a New Labour-dominated NUS, we have seen the argument for free, public education dropped from the mainstream student movement in favour of a policy of a “graduate tax” which, to my mind, was inevitably going to end in the mess we are now in. Inevitable, since the minute we retreat into accepting the need for payment of public services (payment beyond tax that is), then we stand on a slippery slope which starts with £1000 per year and ends up less than 15 years later with £9000. And how long until the fees cap is finally wrenched off completely? I give it less than a decade.

Now more than ever we need to start from scratch and demand that higher education is recognised as a public good, as much as hospitals, schools and firefighters. Can you imagine “patient contributions” for users of the NHS? “Saved-from-a-burning-house contribution” for recipients of the fire service? We are already seeing this process in the NHS, and it was only thanks to the huge public outcry that the initial stages of this process have been put on hold – for now.

The real student power was seen in the school walkouts, the massive marches in London, and the campus occupations. We expected ten thousand on the 10th November, but got over fifty thousand marchers. Two weeks later, without any union backing, 130,000 students from across the country came out on the streets in protest.

There were dozens of campus occupations during this period, I lost count at forty. And the student organisations mobilising these students did so on an uncompromising stand for education as a right, not a privilege.

It was why student groups supported the 26th March protest against public sector cuts, even organising a student feeder march to the main demonstration. And why many students supported the picket lines in the mass strikes of public sector workers last week. At Goldsmiths we had a battlebus that drove to the picket lines in our area, dishing out food, coffee and solidarity.

The student movement last year was an example of real student power – not as customers, consuming information and causing a fuss if it wasn’t what it said on the tin. But students as part of the learning process that benefits all of society, being challenged intellectually, researching independently and all within the sphere of society as a whole, not the narrow interests of the economy or big business. The Coalition’s White Paper puts us in the opposite course: of disempowerment and disembodiment from education as a whole.

James Haywood is Student Union President at Goldsmiths University, London.

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