Students as Consumers: Fair or Fatal?

By Hilary Webb

The end of every university year is always a little more ‘final’ for some more than others, the some being the non-returning graduates. Three or four years of optional education over, too many tears, pints, deadlines and laughs to count but you are ready to fly university’s warm, safe nest. Now for your reward: travelling back to Swansea in July to graduate on a building site of a campus that you haven’t spent a second on and that didn’t exist when you started your degree.

All jokes aside, I have loved almost every second of the academic aspect of my degree, and I know I am incredibly lucky to be able to say that. Because I am of the belief that education should be free and accessible to all, I, regardless of the debt piling up in my name, approached my degree like it was free. I made a point of studying what I wanted to learn, rather than what would guarantee me a job. Such an attitude has led me study some amazing things and spend a year teaching English in France. It has been the best. But has it been worth my £45,000 debt? I’m not so sure.

Swansea Students’ Union Education Officer Robiu Salisu told Waterfront that he knows of ‘students who have chosen to study certain subjects or modules based on the sole reason of money and job prospects’. While he agrees that there is nothing wrong with worrying about job prospects he also rejects the ‘idea of making it a priority when you’re a student because the notion of consumerism means students are being forced to avoid to think less independently and more anxious in playing it safe’.

In 2014 Waterfront reported on two Which? consumer surveys that revealed that after the tuition fee hike to £9000 in England, students who considered their degree value for money dropped from 81% to 68%. It also exposed many universities in the UK to be unlawfully changing the terms of a student’s degree, like the course title, during their time at university.

The problem with Which? running these surveys is that they are a consumer research company. They look out for customers buying a product. It poses the interesting question: are students consumers? Higher Education should be a mutual partnership between students and educators, a commitment to learn, to discover, and to make the world a better place on personal and global levels. It should be fair, affordable and enriching. Yet when so much money comes into play, it risks becoming something else. When you’re paying £9000 a year, it is easy to feel like you expect to receive something in return, regardless of the effort you may or may not put in. Value for money becomes something students often look for throughout their degree.

In August 2016, Swansea University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard B Davies told BBC that there were ‘good reasons’ for taking up government proposals to increase the tuition fee cap to £9250 in England. Professor Davies talked of the difficult choice between increasing access to funding via other options, like taking on more international students, or taking advantage of the cap increase. He said ‘it would be of no kindness to students to offer them a cheap and cheerful education’. For those of us with an ever piling debt, it can be difficult to see how exactly our current experience is ‘cheap and cheerful,’ but universities must get funding somehow, or else risk losing out to competitors to the detriment of its students.

This is part of a much larger problem as our country’s higher education system becomes increasingly like the elitist system in the United States, where the best education can only be accessed by a privileged few. While there are no current plans to increase fees in Wales, Salisu championed the motion for our SU to ‘support and fight for a free education system. One that stands up not just for English students paying £9000 but our International students too’.

‘I believe the rise in tuition fees from £3000 to £9000 for non-Welsh home students reflects the cultural drift towards the acquisition of money as the most important thing in life’ said Salisu. ‘Education is a fundamental right and not something that should be commoditised’.

However, student loans are structured very differently to regular loans and this undoubtedly influences how students view their tuition fees. Fourth year American Studies student Emily Ellis told Waterfront ‘I would 100% say my Swansea degree gave me bang for my buck’. Ellis explained that ‘I never think of our student loans as a debt. I was always told to think of them as a graduate tax because you will never again borrow money so cheaply or with such good repayment requirements’.

Yet, according to the Guardian, last summer saw many graduates outraged as terms of repayments were amended and frozen. The changes left some graduates paying while under the minimum earnings threshold or saw their payments increase up to £180 a month because of interest. It poses the problem that if we ignore our loans and just try to enjoy our degree as an educational experience, this may come back to bite should the government change the terms of our repayments again in the future.

Potentially, the more you ask students to pay then the more they begin to feel like customers and the less patient they become with slip ups. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard friends groan ‘we’re paying £9000 for this?’ when lecturers are late or if a class leaves us more confused than educated. Charge students any more and they’ll be less complacent about disappearing lecturers, outsourced counselling services and unsuitable accommodation on HSV.

The financial investment 18-year olds now have to make when choosing higher education risks leading them to expect something from their degree regardless of the work they put in. An attitude Salisu hopes students will resist, as he urges them ‘to continue this discussion on campus about free education, what it means and how higher education should be funded’.

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