The marketisation of higher education has heralded many successes in recent times. A variety of students from different backgrounds are becoming the first in their family to attend university. The principle behind student finance itself is rather popular. Those who wish to pursue an academic education must finance their own education by repaying a government loan when they earn over £18,924 a year. This provides all individuals, no matter their economic background, the chance to attend university.
Importantly, the current student finance system encourages students to work hard and make the most of their higher education. Those who attend university do so in the knowledge that to waste three years of studying will burden them with a hefty debt without the same career prospects as those who took their studies seriously.
However, students are not getting a good deal for the £9,000 they pay each year. The strike action by lecturers has crippled universities for months on end. Picket lines and propaganda slurs by teaching unions have blighted students’ higher education experience. Indeed, it has left millions missing out on the academic experience they signed up for. On top of this, tuition fees are diverted to saturate the fat cat salaries of university deans and chancellors.
These serious grievances can be rectified by returning to the basic principle of market forces. If students are to be treated as consumers, shopping around for the best institution to achieve their career goals, they should expect the same consumer rights in return.
Students ought to receive compensation for lectures and seminars they don’t receive, and university staff should not use their institutions as a gravy train at the expense of students. Tuition fees should be invested in improving their education services.
The winter of discontent 2020
Since 2018, there have been three mass strikes affecting students. For those graduating this year, Covid-19 has seriously hampered the academic year. However, even before the virus, most of their university experience had been cut short by staff strikes during the winter months.
From 25 November to 5 December 2019, students were blocked from entering classrooms and libraries by picketing lecturers and left-wing societies. Students were actively encouraged not to cross the picket line, sometimes by extremely intimidatory means, and instead show “solidarity” with their academic staff.
After a long Christmas break, students returned to university fresh and ready to learn. Unfortunately, once again, the unions had other ideas. Another strike was called for 20 February to 13 March. However this time, students could get some solace from the fact that the cold weather deterred many demonstrators from forming picket lines outside of buildings, allowing students to enter without the risk of abuse.
My experience of militant unionism in university is shared by many of my undergraduate and postgraduate friends. In total, since 2018, 42 days have been lost to strike action. In an attempt to achieve maximum disruption, the unions have spread strike days over three weeks. For a student with few contact hours, this could mean a whole three weeks without lectures and seminars.
Students have rightly demanded their money back for years, but to little avail. Many have signed petitions, for example, in an effort to express their opposition. Sheffield Hallam’s petition has around 14,000 signatures and is asking for £863.33 reimbursement per affected student for 14 days of disruption, based on fees paid.
Luckily for some, select universities have done the honourable thing and reimbursed their students for the loss of contact hours. Other students have been given Amazon vouchers and other gimmicky but insubstantial goodwill gestures. Most students, however, have got nothing.
If students are expected to pay for their education, it is only fair that they are treated as consumers throughout the process. Students invest their tuition fees in a university. It is only fair that when that institution reneges on its contractual promise to provide a full year’s tuition, they compensate the student pound for pound.
Fat cat salaries
Strike action is only one of the many grievances students have against universities. When young people invest £27,000 for a university education, most imagine that much of that cost will go towards paying teaching staff, providing learning resources and investing in research.
They would be understandably outraged to learn that a hefty chunk of their fees will go towards the six-figure salaries of university staff, as TaxPayers’ Alliance research has highlighted. The University of Edinburgh reported the greatest number of high earners, reporting that 335 staff received salaries over £100,000, of which 118 receive over £150,000.
These huge salaries steadily increase the £5.7 billion pension deficit hole amassed by universities. Efforts to reduce the deficit have been resisted by the strikes. At the current rate, students and taxpayers will both be footing the bill for these salaries for many years to come.
On an action day at Durham University’s freshers’ fair which I attended, the TaxPayers’ Alliance revealed to students that their chancellor was receiving a salary of £301,431. This showed people just how little value for money they are really getting. Indeed, many rightfully asked if it was right that senior staff should be receiving a salary higher than the prime minister. It is not an unreasonable ask for chancellors and vice-chancellors to take pay cuts and use the savings to reimburse students for strike action or help to plug the pension deficit.
This would have the added benefit of reducing the burden for future taxpayers. Because, while it’s right to demand value for money for students, it’s also important to remember that taxpayers also bear the brunt of higher education funding, due to only 30 per cent of undergraduates managing to repay all of their loans.
If union disruption and picket lines are going to be a feature of university life, tuition fees should be partly voided to reflect this, just as universities also need to be held accountable for the excessive salaries they pay to senior staff.
If students continue to demand changes to tuition fees and keep defiantly crossing the picket line, the rotten deal that many get can eventually be changed. And if that’s what it takes to cause universities to get real and cut down on these inefficiencies, taxpayers will thank them for it.