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martin marko

postgraduate education
m.marko@uea.ac.uk

The Higher Education Game: Are Students Pawns?

We are now three weeks into the UCU industrial action over catastrophic changes to the pensions scheme in Higher Education.  

I have heard from students who are concerned about the impact on their education, and some who are even frustrated that their lecturers have gone on strike.  

You feel like pawns, held between University management and those who teach you.  There are two key areas of thought that we need to address: 

“I support lecturers, but we deserve to be compensated” 

“I support lecturers, but strike action is damaging to students”  

Let me start by saying I recognise the above narrative comes from students being forced into a situation where they carry the burden of debt to access education. Someone has quite literally put a cost on your degree and it sits at over £50k. This is simply wrong, and will understandably make students feel at a loss when teaching is disrupted. However the terrifying truth revealed by the strike action, is that some students do indeed now view education as something that is purchased and a product that must be delivered. By demanding that the product must be delivered, we are inadvertently denying staff the right to strike. By removing the right to strike, we are confining staff in higher education to be exposed to worsening conditions of employment with no method of defence. Believe me, more decisions will be made in the coming years at individual institutions like UEA that are not in the interest of students or staff, and unions will be our biggest asset.  

Further to this, demanding refunds for lost teaching based on lost contact hours ignores all the other areas that your tuition fees fund: research, infrastructure, the library etc. Demands for a refund can also be used as a stick to beat striking workers with. It also once again reduces your experience of Higher Education to small costed chunks of teaching, that must be supplied by academic staff, rather than a rounded experience where you are involved in the exchange of knowledge facilitated by academic staff.  

I know it feels raw, and I would agree that students are being used as pawns, but not over pensions. 

Students have in fact been used as pawns long before this dispute began.   

Funding of English HE now comes heavily from tuition fees, which not only puts financial weight on students, but has also revolutionised the way students are viewed by the institutions themselves, and not for the better. Your fees are the primary source of University funding, so you are quickly becoming mere figures on a profit margin, a resource. Your fees are now used as an investment for buildings and other services, they also contribute to expansion to keep the university as a business booming. The university trades degrees.  

At this point you are probably angry, and it is easy to start to question what you get for your fees. You want to know where your money is spent. We must resist this narrative, it reduces the value of education to something that can be bought and sold, something that can be broken down into pounds and pence. Yes having a degree statistically increases your earnings compared to a non-graduate, as well as opening opportunities that you otherwise would not have been able to access. However, further education does not just benefit the individual, it is also a public good. It is of value to the public, so we should stop acting in the way it is funded as if it is purely self-serving and a personal luxury. I am not just speaking of the quantified public benefits of higher education which add value to society – higher economic productivity nationally, less crime, and social mobility, to name just a few. I am also talking about what is says about us as a society when we decide that public education, and the development of our citizens, is something that is worth centrally funding through the state. When did we decide that public education and societal development should be at the cost of the individual? 

You should be asking why an institution that charges £9k tuition fees can’t afford stable pensions for their staff. It’s almost as if the funding model doesn’t work, and we are pitted off against each other for resources, instead of the entire HE funding system being looked at and changed. We mustn’t turn on each other because of the negative effects of the education reforms brought in by the 2016 Higher Education bill. Instead we should be shouting out at how the progressive marketisation of Higher Education is dragging down standards for both students and staff and must be overhauled immediately.  

It is right to be angry about all of this, but it is time that we started channelling this anger at the people who have the capacity to make change, and not the academics who are taking industrial action as a last resort. 

So yes, students are being used as pawns, but not by academics who are trying to prevent the further deterioration of conditions in HE, but by the government, and by the Vice Chancellors who didn’t do more to fight against these changes when they started to roll out.  

Myself and the Undergraduate Education Officer will be releasing some guidance about academic performance and strike action next week for anyone who has concerns about the future need for academic adjustment.  

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