It’s not about the money, money, money – education and consumer rights

Originally published on themisanthropope.tumblr
I have a confession which will come as no surprise to the people who know me. I smoke. Not as heavily as I used to, but this isn’t much of a positive statement when you consider just how much I smoke these days. I haven’t stopped smoking for a number of reasons: I like it; it’s relaxing, it allows me to take five minutes of peace on a busy day. But mostly, I like smoking because I tend to have the most insightful thoughts and conversations over a rollie. Definitely an excellent reason to risk lung cancer, right there. 
At half past eleven or so most weekdays, if you take a stroll to the University of Cambridge Downing Site, you’ll come across me lighting up in the car park of the William Hardy building. Chances are, I’m sleepy, and annoyed cos I’ve just come out of a seminar. The Cambridge MPhil in Gender Studies is a perplexing blend of fascinating and frustrating, and post seminar I’m generally intellectually stimulated, but grumpy. Over a smoke, I often reflect on concerns about the course with my fellow genderlings (as I’ve taken to calling them). A particular conversation comes to my mind:
“It’s crap,” says my friend (let’s call her Gertrude. I’ve always wanted a friend called Gertrude.) “That last seminar was just crap!”
I grunt something in response. She’s correct, but I’m still getting over how crap it is to be vertical and dressed at 11.30am. 
“I’m going to complain,” Gertrude continues, “I pay good money to be here. This course isn’t value for money.”
Subsequent to that, we parted and she rode off (let’s say she rode off on a giraffe. I’ve always wanted to know someone who rides a giraffe.)
I guess what Gertrude said makes sense. We’re paying good money (as opposed to what, morally dubious money? Whatever would that look like…) to be at the University of Cambridge. We’re not getting our money’s worth from out education. By this logic, education is a service; we, as students, are consumers. Consumers have rights, we have a say, isn’t that what we’re always told? 
I want to call time on this way of thinking about our education and our rights, simply because it is wrong. A University is not like a supermarket. If ASDA sells me consistently crappy food, I can just go to Tesco instead. No harm, no foul. It’s easy – just don’t turn up for my weekly shop one week, take myself and my money elsewhere. If I don’t like the way that the University of Cambridge teaches Gender Studies, the fact that I am currently paying £10,000 of someone elses money to do my course, sadly, does not entitle me to go “fuck this,” and head off to Oxford. 
Free market advocates, neoliberals, whatever you want to call them, would have us believe that money gives us freedom. If we have the money, we have the freedom to chose, to have autonomy. That’s what the free market is, isn’t it? It’s a nice little fantasy, but it really doesn’t apply to Higher Education. For one thing, if we return to the supermarket analogy, if I can’t afford my course, I can’t just go for the basics version (which, presumably would entail some dejected post doc explaining the finer points of gender performativity in a carpark, two days a week). You can split the money issue, and how it impacts upon student rights, between undergraduates and graduates. Most UK undergraduates will pay their fees through a loan of £9,000 from Student Finance England, or some off-shoot of it. We’re all familiar with how student loans work: you never see this money, and you pay it back in installments once you’ve started to earn £21,000 a year. Now, obviously, there are a variety of problems with student loans (more of which will be said later) but I’ll focus on one in particular: inflexibility.
Let me give you an example based on students I worked with last year as a CUSU Sabbatical officer. For the sake of anonymity, I’ve take liberties with the fact of their cases, and I’ve changed their names. Let’s call them Kevin and Clara. Both Kevin and Clara are undergraduates at Cambridge, who, for one reason or another, want to change University. In Kevin’s case, he was falsely accused of plagiarism (an accusation which turned out to be personally motivated  by a vindictive supervisor) and as a result, Kevin felt maligned, humiliated and wanted a fresh start. Clara, on the other hand, had fallen out with her college, in particular, her DoS (Director of Studies), who she felt was harassing her (I suspect, but cannot, sadly, prove, that the harassment had a sexual element) to the extent that she wanted to get out of Cambridge as fast as possible. In both cases the students had identified alternative courses at alternative Universities, but were still concerned about money. As their representative, I called Student Finance England to see what funding possibilities were available. In particular, the students wanted their remaining loans to be transferred to a new University. The answer was a resounding “no”, or at a push, they might get a year’s funding or so, but the rest they would have to front themselves. “Their” loan, “their” money, was out of their hands, it was not under their control, and as a result they both needed to remain at Cambridge. From what I understand they are still experiencing difficulties. So much for consumer power for students. 
This is (one of) the problems with student loans. Since only the richest can afford to front £9,000 a year, plus living costs, the majority of undergraduates take a loan, and once that loan is taken out, you are, in many ways stuck, like Kevin and Clara. Throw into the mix that the Government is in the process of privatising the student loan book, so that the very repayment scheme we were promised could easily change to something far less “reasonable”  payment scheme, and we have a system where students are trapped. The choice you can make is stay where you are, take the debt, or don’t bother with University at all. 
Graduates have even less freedom in this respect. Unless you are absurdly rich, chances are as a graduate you will be on a scholarship, or, like me, you’re borrowing the money from a bank. Most scholarships are pretty strict in their terms; if you are being paid to study Gender Studies at Cambridge, you are damn well going to do Gender Studies at Cambridge, and if it’s tough you can just deal with it. In my case, around half my fees have already been paid by the bank. I can’t just demand my money and back and move on if I am unhappy. 
The key point is that in most cases it isn’t your money. Like so much the money winging its way around capitalist society, it belongs to someone else, and the only time it becomes ‘yours’ is when you have to pay it back, a situation with severely limited liberties. 
Hang on, I hear the right cry, the problem is straight forward. We don’t have a ‘proper’ free market in education, so why not instigate one? Because, right-wingers, it wouldn’t work. Others have written more eloquently about this than I but my two cents on the issue: firstly, that would require that students had the money to afford University courses, and only the wealthy can do that. Secondly, business will generally compete to keep customers, and more often than not this will have an impact on the quality of the “product.” We’re back at the Basics Gender Studies course, taught by the depressed post-doc, who, let’s face it, is probably going to be me. Next lecture behind the bins in five, guys…
The fact is that money does not give you power as a student. Universities like Cambridge are happy to take your money and ignore your problems if they see fit. If you don’t believe me, the recent Cambridge Speaks Its Mind campaign is currently drawing attention to the myriad of welfare problems at Cambridge. One would think they deserved better. 
This is important to Cambridge because it is a place which is preposterously rich but at the same time intensely bad at allocating its resources effectively. Consider how little money is available for student parents (see my previous blog post) yet it was recently reported that Cambridge college spent a whopping £3 million a year on wine. This is an issue which is pertinent to graduate students. There is a real tension in Cambridge between colleges, money and students. To put this another way, certain colleges have vast quantities of money set aside for graduates which rarely makes it into their pockets. A lot of this comes as a result of a fairly decent proportion of Cambridge’s money originating from wealth alumni donors, former students who want others to follow in their footsteps, so they give their old college (let’s say New Hall) a sum of money to set up a graduate scholarship in the area they specialised (let’s say for theology students writing about the imagery of food in the Book of Ezekiel). Now if you by a coincidence happen to want to study this, huzzah! However, what is striking is just how niche some of these scholarships can be. Where’s the general scholarship for poorer MPhil and PhD students? A quick search picks out a handful scattered across the colleges. Now, one might argue that the course of action here is simple – we just decide to do the projects which guarantee us the funding. I take issue with this for the reason that most graduates will have formed an idea of the project they want to work on when they apply for a course. It is their project, based on their interests, to advance their academic career. It shouldn’t be dictated by a wealthy college donor, who may have predated women in the college, let along that student’s research interests. Now, certainly, some students will be willing to change their projects to fit funding criteria. I suspect the majority will not, or will only do so as a result of harsh financial reality. Again, we’re back to this thorny issue of money and freedom. 
The point of this post is that money does not give you real freedom. I’ll nuance that – money does not give an individual real freedom. It gives institutions the power to shit all over you. Why else can Cambridge University get away with such awful student support when it clearly has the money to make changes (see here, and here for some new coverage of this). To have power over our education, we can’t afford to fall into the trap that we can buy our way to better. Frankly, if we do that, we’re looking at an impending disaster. We need to stop looking at education as a service, trying to act as consumers, and think about it as a political issue. The lack of proper graduate funding, or the terrible welfare support, at Cambridge is a political statement on the part of the University – it says that they would rather be wining and dining, and generally revelling in their 800 and however many year reputation than putting students’ needs first. This needs to change, and it will only change when the vast majority of students are willing to speak out against it. 
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