Should working class students boycott university?
I went to university to arrest my spiraling, downward mobility and remedy my chronic ignorance. It was the mid-90s, I was in my mid-20s and the student grant hadn’t yet been abolished, so university was a realistic option for a prospective student from a working class background who didn’t have clue what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Today I still don’t know what I want to do with the rest of my life but at least I’ve an arse in my trousers (as my Granny would say) and I’m less ignorant than I was before university admissions in 1994. That said, were I ignorant and poor today I can categorically say I would not look to university to improve my circumstances. In fact, I’ve had a thought so heretical that I blush to think of it: should working class students boycott university?
Even though I’m both a beneficiary and (in principle) a supporter of widening access to university, I can see that successive governments have handled the extension of higher education badly and their motives are suspect. Swelling student numbers has not been met with a commensurate increase in staff and resources, and this has, of course, had a detrimental effect on the quality of the education provided in HE. It is also an indication that the arrival of students from non-traditional backgrounds (in the jargon) has announced a fundamental change in the experience and role of universities. Institutions that once produced the ruling class are today full of riff-raff like me and that changes everything.
The previous Conservative administration saw in universities a away of massaging the unemployment figures but New Labour has grander plans and reckons higher education can engineer economic prosperity and facilitate greater social mobility. To achieve this it has made higher education subservient to business and encouraged students to behave like consumers, neither of which has done anything for the intellectual life of universities.
According to Clare Fox, marketisation has ‘turned education on its head’. Writing in the Macdonaldisation of Higher Education, she points out the fundamental change in tutor/student relations.
Students are no longer supplicants who must demonstrate that they deserve to be accepted as apprentices by the most advanced minds and researchers in the field. Rather students are the masters that must be flattered and cajoled by humble lecturers who are warned that students will take their “custom” to other educational institutions if they are not satisfied with the marked they receive or the way they are taught.
Asserting the authority of teachers isn’t very cool these days but it is undeniable that lecturers know better than their students. Consumers are always right but students can’t be. Students by definition should be seeking enlightenment, so to stand the student/lecturer relationship on its head is to disregard expertise, knowledge and learning, and replace it with the unending quest for the Holy Grail of value for money. Government and university Vice-Chancellors seem sanguine about this but it means that universities may carry the name ‘higher education’ but none of the substance .
The key to facilitating this lamentable state of affairs is fees, which have not only turned students into consumers but landed them in extraordinary debt. Students who started university in 2007 are likely to owe more than £17, 500, according to the BBC last year, and pressure is growing for fees to rise further.
I can’t help but suspect that there is more to student loans than paying for an education. According to Ben Funnell debt is ‘capitalism’s dirty little secret’: Writing the wake of the credit crunch in the Financial Times in June 2009 ‘excessive lending was the only way to maintain the living standards of the vast bulk of the population at a time when wealth was being concentrated in the hands of an elite.’ So, that’s why young people are saddled with such debt even before they start their working lives, to keep the rich in the style they have become accustomed to.
But the genius of the system doesn’t stop there. If you are a student from a working class background that has got yourself in hock to pay for a higher education of dubious value, don’t expect access to any of the leading professions. A recent government report published on 21 July 2009 suggests that careers in law, medicine, teaching and journalism are often closed to students from working-class backgrounds. And it’s not the only report grappling with how and why working class students are disadvantaged in the graduate labour market.
According to education expert, Prof Alison Wolf, we’ve reached the stage where universities are producing far more graduates than the labour force can provide for. And study after study shows that the number of ‘over-qualified’ workers has been increasing because as the number of graduates increase so does the number of ‘graduate’ jobs – jobs that in truth require no more qualifications and skills than they did when performed by non-graduates.
So, crap, intellectually vacuous courses, massive debt and a job at the end of it all that previously asked only for clean drivers license but now demands a degree. It’s hard not to conclude that there is something rotten about the wedding of education to economic imperatives, which is why I’m wondering should working class students boycott university?