25 January 2017
What’s a good education worth? Conversations about the steady neoliberalisation of UK universities often circle around the question of rising tuition fees and the impact this is having on students. But while this is of crucial importance, it needs to be seen as part of the bigger picture of the changes that have been taking place in higher education over recent years. We now have an environment in which, far from learning being valued for its own sake, students are positioned as consumers and more and more of the people who teach them are being employed on what trade unionists have called a “Sports Direct model” of zero-hours contracts.
As a PhD student soon hoping to enter the academic job market, I’ve seen close at hand how the marketisation of university education is impacting on both students and early career academics. When the Guardian completed its recent investigation into university lecturers’ pay, finding that 53% of academics are on insecure, short-term contracts, I was not particularly surprised. I’ve seen my peers lurch from one nine-month lecturing contract to the next (forget about getting paid during the summer months between academic years) or pick up hourly teaching at rates that don’t even begin to cover all the hidden labour of marking, preparation and pastoral support.
Everyone I've met in academia, like me, loves what they do, and as a result they are all working far harder than they should be – or certainly far harder than they're paid to be. Most of the academics and research students I speak to are facing pressure from all angles; everyone is under-resourced and over-worked. Strong and insidious mechanisms of self-discipline and self-silencing are constantly at play. On the whole, it all matches the dismal picture drawn by Rosalind Gill, who describes "hard-working, self-motivating and enterprising" academics as "perfectly emblematic of this neoliberal moment".
This isn’t just bad for academics struggling to make ends meet. As the Green Party put it in its 2015 manifesto, the purpose of universities should be to “promote critical enquiry, social innovation and cultural renewal”. It’s hard to do any of that, though, when more than half of academic staff are overworked and precariously employed. In my experience, the vast majority of lecturers care deeply about their subject and the learning experience of their students. But it’s simply impossible to offer the best teaching and support to students when having to juggle an unrealistic number of responsibilities (often including other jobs to supplement teaching income).
Meanwhile, many students now approach their education with an attitude of “the customer is always right” – and why wouldn’t they, when they’re charged huge fees and encouraged to “shop the market” for the best degrees? What this produces is an expectation that a degree is the end point of a transaction, not the culmination of an exploratory intellectual journey. As a result, the value of just learning is severely undermined. In this system, everybody loses: lecturers lead insecure and over-stressed existences, the quality of teaching suffers, and students fail to get the most from their (extortionately priced) education.
While the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework promises to put a welcome emphasis on teaching (which has often been sidelined in pursuit of research prestige), the real question is how it is going to define and measure that tricky quality of “excellence”. At the moment, it looks like the crude and unreliable metric of student surveys will play a big part. As important as the views of students are, this approach fails to account for the nuances and complexity of university-level teaching – and, as the NUS has pointed out, under current plans student satisfaction will be used as a blunt instrument to allow universities to raise tuition fees even further. The cycle continues.
Yes, pushing for an end to tuition fees is an important fight, and one that we as Greens must remain firmly committed to. But if we really want to address the problems and inequalities in higher education today we have to widen the picture and look at how university education is framed, what essential values underpin it, and how its employment practices impact on academics and students alike.