Many longstanding issues with universities and higher education throughout the UK have finally come to light amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. From the use of non-disclosures agreements to silence students who’ve experienced misconduct, to the extraordinary tuition fee inflation for international students, the pandemic has made it clear that universities need to drastically change their model and approach to student welfare. 

For courses starting after the 1 September 2012, tuition fees rose from £3,375 to the current standard of £9,000. Labour’s 2017 efforts to scrap tuition fees were met sceptically by the press and public. Headlines like “Labour plan to scrap uni tuition fees destroyed – ‘Not paying for 18-year-old layabout!’” were indicative of the overwhelming consensus that the proposal was too much of an expense for the British taxpayer. 

Irrespective of any hypothetical implications of the abolition of tuition fees, the 2012 increase in tuition fees changed how universities operate. Universities have since become set on marketing themselves as the most enticing prospect for prospective students. The concern is no longer about the quality of the service that they provide; it is about creating the most scrupulous brand image possible. 

So, why is the current business model for universities such a problem?

I have viewed my time at university not as a student or an individual, but as a consumer, fighting for every right to get every penny’s worth of my £9,250 annual tuition fees. Yet there’s always a feeling of hesitancy if I try to organise or speak out against my university.

It’s a feeling that I certainly don’t feel if I critique any other big or unethical businesses. Tiptoeing the awkward line between exploited consumer and a school child, I fear that trying to seek out any positive change that defies management is just asking for trouble. And when management are approached to help, I have found that they usually evade directly addressing student concerns or queries, particularly surrounding the last two years of industrial action. 

In 2019, University of Sussex Vice Chancellor Adam Tickell told the Financial Times that “the suggestion that universities have pots of money that can sort out the problem is just not going to fly. Everyone needs to recognise that these are very difficult times”.

In December 2017 The Sun reported Tickell was paid £387,000 for the period of September 2016 to July 2017, plus £17,000 relocation costs and £9,000 in pension contributions. Meanwhile, other university staff members continue to fight for their rights to secure employment, better work conditions, and a decent pension. 

As a student who has lost nine weeks (almost a full university term) due to industrial action, I still support my educators’ rights to a better future. But it’s an imperative that universities adequately refund students who have lost out on education due to industrial action. Most students have not been compensated at all for the most recent round of industrial action.

As for the loss of teaching due to Covid-19, there are currently no plans to refund students’ tuition fees, or to compensate students who are obligated to continue paying rent on properties in their university towns. 

The very working conditions that staff are campaigning to improve are reflected by the student experience of university, too. A disgruntled final year Psychology student at Sussex told me that “[her] year is bad enough for staff-student ratios and contact time, and it’s just going to get worse as the groups get bigger. My year had 350 students which was bad enough, this year has 550. There isn’t even a lecture hall big enough for them on campus.”

The shift to online teaching has highlighted the inability of higher education institution’s to adequately adapt to the needs of students. In an email, Kelly Coates, the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students, told Sussex students: “We’re doing all we can to ensure the education and learning you’re receiving remains at a high-standard. We are also working hard to ensure you are able to achieve the learning outcomes of your course.” As a final year student, I have had no online seminars or lectures. 

Unlike businesses which cannot provide their customers with their products or services, universities are still happily charging full tuition fees for students, irrespective of the quality of online teaching. There is a peculiar hostility amongst the general population towards students, and often, we are entirely left out of wider conversations concerning the impact of the Covid-19 on the UK. I have to continually defend my right to receiving my education that I have paid for as I’m unable to simply stop paying my fees or to protest in any meaningful way. 

A closer examination of what constitutes as “the university experience” is deeply disturbing. Much of my university experience has been about the transition into adulthood and looking beyond the glistening façade of the brilliant university advertising. According to a recent BBC investigation, since 2016 almost one in three universities have silenced student grievances with non-disclosure agreements. It seems this is a commonplace method for burying potential PR scandals and damaging the university’s (read: brand’s) image.

Directly addressing or tackling any issues means acknowledging them and opens up universities to public scrutiny that could impact any future students (read: customers).  According to the Telegraph, Dr Lee Salter, convicted of beating a former student he was in a relationship with was allowed to continue teaching, despite the protests of his traumatised victim. He remained employed at the University of Sussex even after being found guilty of assaulting Allison Smith, a 24-year-old student he met during an induction day at the university.

Similarly, in the case of the Warwick Rape Chat in 2018, one victim felt her case was handled so poorly that she said: “I don’t want to go to my graduation. I just can’t wait to never have to go to Warwick ever again”. But how many university students share this sentiment in less publicised cases? How many students feel this way in cases that they feel unable to report? 

Universities provided figures to Channel 4 in 2019 that showed an increase of reports of sexual violence at universities; from 65 in 2014, to 626 in 2018. Unless you are “fortunate” enough to have your case highly publicised and potentially threaten the university’s source of potential income in any way, there runs the risk of universities quietly burying any complaints. 

Universities need to radically change how they deal with student and staff grievances. My experience at my university, in particular, has taught me that to management and my university I’m not a person, or even a student, but a source of income.

Most of the experiences and memories made at university weren’t through any form of education or resource that my institution provided me with. I cultivated most of my learning through independent research, merely prompted by my curriculum and my own interests.

When I have struggled with certain aspects of university life, it has predominantly been down to my university refusing to address how their decisions have led to the degradation of mine and other’s wellbeing. Counselling and therapy change little when you are confined to a campus, forced to confront my university’s refusal to tackle its issues head on. 

When a business continually puts profit above people, it’s easy to withdraw your financial support. But the shift in universities’ income after the introduction of tuition fees means that the very students who are being exploited and mistreated by Higher Education institutions are responsible for funding them.

Regardless of your political alignment, it’s crucial that we reconsider how universities are funded in order to hold them accountable to providing quality education and ensuring the wellbeing of its students and staff. 

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