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Fees and worries: marketisation affects our collective wellbeing

Wednesday 09-11-2016 - 11:18

With just ten days until the United for Education demo, Warwick SU Welfare and Campaigns Officer Chloe Wynne tells us why hundreds of Warwick students will be marching in London on #Nov19.

Earlier in the term, a throwaway quip from Warwick SU President Luke Pilot 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!”

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 the disciplinary function of tuition fees. In practice, they stunt the ability to see beyond oneself. When every lecture and seminar has a price-tag, the human interactions behind them are lost. Everything becomes transactional and about our own needs as individuals, rather than the collective good.

Marketisation is by no means a new theme in the British government’s vision for higher education. The past two decades have seen HE institutions gradually morph into corporate leviathans, encouraged by the state to put more funding into their marketing than their support services. This shifting perception of students as consumers rather than as learners is devastating - 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. The HE Bill epitomises this regressive vision and, if passed, it will only damage the sector – and student wellbeing – further.

Here at Warwick SU, 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 enrichment or sheer enjoyment– 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 or collaborators, our coursemates have become competitors as we all scrabble against each other for that sacred internship.

The combination of these circumstances has a major impact on students’ wellbeing – at the Welfare stand I’ve been running 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. One in three undergraduate students report that they often or always worry about money, with the figure rising to 40 per cent for Taught Postgraduates. The growing mental health crisis on UK campuses has seen an astonishing 50 per cent increase in demand for support services, many of which are being stretched to breaking point. This increase started, incidentally, at exactly the same point that tuition fees trebled and the pressures associated with student debt increased exponentially. Coincidence? You’d have to be in a particularly blinkered form of denial to think so.

This is the true price of a marketised model of HE: by transforming individuals into part of a homogenous mass, we become just another expendable cog in the machine. When did young people become this, and when did our stunned silence become interpreted as acceptance? When did we become 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, considered little more than a glorified revenue stream for HE institutions?

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. The blueprint for our lives is being drawn up beneath our noses, and if we don’t 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 HE Bill will open the floodgates for further fee-rises, exacerbating all those problems listed above. Unless take a stand, things aren’t going to get better – they’re going to get worse. It’s time to say “enough is enough”.

The Warwick SU Sabbatical Officer team will be joining hundreds of Warwick students to march at the #Nov19 National Demo in opposition to the government’s vision for higher education. For info on how to join them, visit our United for Education hub

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