Posted on Thu 03 Nov 2016 at 10:54 by Christopher Carter
Earlier in the term, a throwaway quip from SU President Luke Pilot on the eve of his election (you know the one I mean!) came back to bite us when someone tweeted: “If SU Sabbs cared more about issues unique to Warwick than saving the world from capitalism, maybe they'd achieve more!”
Quite aside from being wholly inaccurate (student welfare and mental health were subsequently cited as concerns, both of which are among our top priorities for the year), it was a cheap and easy shot - but also a rather short-sighted one which sadly said much about the absence of analytical thought being instilled in our generation. Because there couldn’t possibly be any sort of connection between such disparate forces... could there?
Despite the micro and the macro being inextricably linked, an inability to connect the dots is hardly surprising when you consider just how much of a disciplinary tool tuition fees act as. In practice, they stunt lateral thought and the ability to see beyond oneself. Since we can now attribute a price-tag to every lecture or seminar, we lose sight of the human interactions underpinning these. Everything becomes transactional and about our own needs as individuals, rather than a collective good - instead of “What are the implications of this?”, the question becomes: “How does this directly affect me, right here and now?”
Such short-term thinking is the bread-and-butter of contemporary politics – after all, no-one ever got re-elected off the ability to demonstrate anything other than tangible or immediate impacts! However, marketisation is by no means a new theme in the British Government’s vision for Higher Education. The past two decades have seen Higher Education Institutions gradually morph into corporate leviathans, urged along by the governments in power to put more funding into their marketing than into support services. This shifting perception of students as consumers rather than as learners is inappropriate and highly damaging - not just to students and their teachers, but also to wider society. We are increasingly sold the ‘aspirational’ idea of university as a stepping stone to wealth, rather than as a time of enrichment, personal development and learning. This has already led to a decrease in the number of part-time, mature and postgraduate students, and has coerced students into choosing subjects for their earning potential rather than for aptitude and enjoyment. The HE Bill epitomises this regressive vision and, if passed, it will only damage the sector – and student wellbeing – further.
Here at the Students’ Union, we have witnessed the knock-on effects of this creeping transition over several years. No longer do many students choose to get involved with extra-curricular activities for the enrichment or sheer enjoyment of it – they’re viewed solely as addendums to their CV. We’ve seen the introduction of tellingly-named schemes such as ‘MyAdvantage’, designed to instil an ethos of one-upmanship in students’ career planning. Rather than friends, peers or collaborators, our coursemates have become competitors as we all scrabble against each other for that sacred internship or placement. Warwick now feels like a rat-race, leaving many feeling anxious about their prospects.
The combination of these circumstances has a major impact on students’ wellbeing – at the Welfare stand I’ve been running at Pop! this term, you’d be amazed at the range of concerns students disclose: “Worrying about the future” and feeling that “Everyone else is ahead” being by far the most common. Digging deeper, it gets worse still. Already, one in three undergraduate students report that they often or always worry about money, with the figure rising to 40% for Taught Postgraduates. There is a growing mental health crisis on UK campuses which has seen an astonishing 50% increase in demand for support services, many of which are currently being stretched to breaking point. This increase started, incidentally, at exactly the same point that tuition fees were trebled and the pressures associated with student debt increased exponentially. Coincidence? You’d have to be in a particularly blinkered form of denial or ideological cocoon to think so.
This is the true price of a marketised model of Higher Education: by transforming individuals into part of a homogenous mass, we become just another faceless, expendable cog in the machine. When did young people become this, and when did our stunned silence become interpreted as acceptance or complicity? When did we become simply units of production, defined solely by our ability to contribute to the bottom-line? When did we become that infernal buzz-phrase, “ordinary students”, devoid of political thought or agency who act little more than a glorified revenue stream for Higher Education institutions or are placed onto the graduate production line to later be shipped off into industry?
Given the collective challenges we will face globally over the coming decades, this is the exact opposite of how we should be approaching the future. We should be kicking against this process, not passively accepting it. The blueprint for our lives is being drawn up beneath our noses, and by refusing to stand up in opposition we are sitting back and letting it happen. It does not have to be this way. Money. Debt. Career prospects. Housing worries. Inequality. The future of the country, continent or planet. The list of worries currently weighing down on students is absolutely unprecedented, yet still we refuse to take a stand?
As forums for independent thought and learning, universities are supposed to be one of the last frontiers against these encroaching forces - yet even they are now being forced to bend to the will of the marketplace. The proposals contained in the government’s Higher Education Bill will open the floodgates for further fee-rises, thus exacerbating all those problems listed above. Unless we stand up in opposition, things aren’t going to get better – they’re going to get worse. It’s time to say “enough is enough”.
The SU Sabbatical Officer team will be joining hundreds of Warwick students to march at the #Nov19 National Demo to show our opposition to the government’s vision for Higher Education. Subsidised coach places are available for just £5 HERE – we hope you’ll join us!
(P.S. - If you’re now as hyped as I am, buy your ticket and listen to this):