The cost-cutting mechanism of the market, extended to institutions of learning, has proved disastrous when combined with the pressures of the pandemic. Universities, whose funding is contingent upon raw student numbers, have presided over a wellbeing and financial crisis of an unprecedented scale.
Our institutions have demanded that students manage this crisis, and the isolation and anxiety that it has caused, without offering sufficient support for the burgeoning financial pressures of undergraduate and postgraduate life. In an economy where unemployment is nearly 5% and growth is the worst it has been for a century, when accommodation is increasingly under the remit of the private sector – leading to extortionate rents, and in the context of ten years of regressive reforms, including the abolition of maintenance grants and increasingly unmanageable fees, the chickens of this system are coming home to roost.
Justifiable resentment has spread to universities across the UK – and around the world – as students denounce sky-high fees amid the wider context of marketisation and the predominance of insecure, expensive housing.
Ironically, university reforms aimed at psychologically framing students as ‘consumers’ have politicised an entire generation. When such changes are contingent upon an ideological lineage which intends to restrict the notion of what is ‘political’ or ‘public’, a new generation of radicalism is emerging.
Against this movement, authorities and commentators accuse students of playing politics with education. They mock the ‘entitlement’ of the snowflake generation, though such ‘entitlement’ is precisely what each higher education reform in the last twenty years has aimed to encourage and facilitate. As strikers decry the lack of financial and mental health support, it is not those who bear the brunt of this abject failure who are ‘playing politics’ with education, but those who would see the student movement reduced to an atomised collection of consumers.
If the purpose of education is merely to equip students for globalisation, then the tools of social media have proved the means by which students are fighting against this rationale. Universities have resorted to threatening emails as they realise that in the face of these strikes they are in a bind: to resort to incrimination and removal of students is to remove their primary source of funding.
It was once said of the American intelligence agencies that anything which is not vociferously denied is true: ask the universities if they have anything but empty threats against a thousand students refusing to pay extortionate fees, and listen to the deafening silence.
To the substance of the wellbeing of students, Amy Dwyer rightly points out that academic league tables do not give sufficient weight to lived experience and practical support. Academic success at the expense of mental health is too often the norm. Changing how we rank higher education institutions is a vital part of changing this.
Beyond that, greater transparency for mental health spending, a required minimum for the proportion of internally-held accommodation for second and third year undergraduate students – and crucially, a partial refund of accommodation to account for the increased strain on student finances and wellbeing, are among the immediate goals of the student movement. At the University of Warwick, we are advocating for a 40% reduction of accommodation fees, and the extraordinary enthusiasm we have received from the student body is in line with that of other universities.
This is a period of historical significance and students increasingly realise the collective power they hold in challenging the power of inadequate systems and institutions.