Debt dampens spirit of protest

August 20, 1999

In our last survey of student life, Jennifer Currie hears how undergraduates have bowed to logic - choosing degrees that will get jobs to pay off loans.

If students are no longer political animals, then it is perhaps because they have been herded into a cage where the bars are financial.

This reasoning could be used to explain why the opinions of our student interviewees on tuition fees and rising levels of student debt were expressed in tones akin to resignation.

There is no doubt from the results of our survey that the student experience has changed. Today's undergraduates are locked in tight to a new economic orthodoxy, which makes them pay for the degree that will get them the job that will allow them to pay off the debt.

It was clear that many still value learning for learning's sake but is it any wonder that most have little time for politics?

Carl McLean, a researcher in the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics, who co-ordinated The THES interviews, said that many of the interviewees adopted a pragmatic attitude towards debt. This in turn has affected students' political views and their perceptions of their representative body, the National Union of Students.

Mr McLean said: "I was surprised by the extent to which students have accommodated what has happened. There is just not a big political climate out there. For many of them the NUS is not relevant. This is not just to do with the Labour stuff, but is because many of them think it serves its own needs.

This in turn has led to a disillusionment with the political culture in general."

Susan, studying politics at Strathclyde, thought that tuition fees would not increase student radicalism as most students were just not bothered. "You've just got to get on with it. There's a strong sense of inevitability about it all," she said.

Students at Cambridge agreed that any regeneration of activism was unlikely, but this was because Oxbridge students were relatively well provided for by the government. "As much as we moan, we don't even take advantage of the stuff that's on offer, and there's an awful lot left untapped," one said.

Goldsmiths' students, however, who staged anti-tuition fees protests earlier this year, believe that such a resurrection is possible. Pete, a history student, said: "If student protests registered across the country then the government would have to listen."

Siobhan, studying English and history, doubted that the NUS would give full backing to such action. "I told my dad on the phone: 'It's great, we've finally got NUS support for the sit-in' and he said 'Why, would they not support that anyway?' and I thought, here I am celebrating the fact that the NUS actually supports its own constituency," she said.

Fiona, a foundation engineer at Plymouth, thought that it would be down to mature students to protest against fees, as the rest of the student population would remain apathetic. "First years will be like, 'Well, that's the way it goes,' but it's a real shame because people will sit round their pints and grumble. Student apathy is a real big problem, but there are few people who'll actually go up and do anything ... and they're not getting together and fighting for what they want."

In some cases, this resignation was tempered by the idea that having to pay for your degree would make students work harder. Pete, reading philosophy at Lancaster, said: "I think that there may be more students knuckling down and getting on with work because they know that, if they are going to have debt, they might as well have a good degree as well. Maybe it will make them a bit more focused."

"On some planet," muttered his colleague Ronan, a combined science student.

"Well, maybe not that much more focused," Pete conceded.

Emily, a biochemistry student from Cardiff, saw the situation differently. "It just promotes guilt if you don't work hard. That's what I feel like because my parents pay and I think, 'Oh, I'm letting them down if they are spending all this money'."

The debt factor was seen as a serious threat to the future of higher education.

"It's possible that people might avoid university now because of the financial debt," said Darrin, who is taking culture, media and communications at Lancaster.

Ben, an English student at Goldsmiths, said: "This homogenisation, on all levels of education - the courses, the universities, the students - it really makes you question the value of it."

The suggestion that institutions should be able to set their own fees met with a negative response, as many of the students feared that this would only create more elitism. Carl, studying English at Strathclyde, said: "You could be essentially paying for your degree, or the privilege for doing it at certain institutions anyway."

Pete at Plymouth said: "You would have to make sure that you provided adequate finances for those who are trying to get to universities that are charging to excess because they're very good. And also, if universities that are very good are getting more money than those that are bad, then they'll get better teachers in and they'll get even better and a lot will get worse. So it could just widen the gap forever."

Student groups who grumbled the loudest were also the first to describe themselves as consumers.

Sara, a human biology student at Plymouth, said that as students are paying customers, universities should be accountable.

"If there were no tuition fees I'd say fair enough, whatever goes, y'know, I'm going to get a free education, I'll take what I can get and I'll grab as much as possible. But now they've given us a tool so let's work with it! It is so true, you can hold it to their throats and say, I've given you a grand, you're meant to give me an education."

In rather less violent terms, Jamie, history, politics and law at Lancaster, agreed.

"I definitely demand more. I go to my tutors and on that basis justify it - pre-essay every time - saying, 'Listen, can you give me a bit of guidance', so I don't fail the course or anything. And it always works. And also if I did fail I'd say, 'Listen, I came here and I've proved myself and I'm paying something and you're still going to kick me out."

For the majority of the interviewees, learning for the sake of learning remained the most important aspect of university. But Ronan from Lancaster welcomed the prospect of a shift towards a vocational degree. "You can do a degree now and go into a completely unrelated work subject, all they look for is a reasonable degree," he said.

"But that's training, it's not about learning," countered his colleague Pete.

Ronan did admit he was worried that employers might start selecting applicants with vocational qualifications over those with traditional degrees.

Pete added: "The polytechnics were where you went to be vocational and universities were where you went to learn, but now it's all got mixed up and those at the bottom don't have the academic standard to have learning for learning's sake properly. The idea of what a university is actually there for has been confused. I think they'll have to split off some at the top to become purely academic and the rest will have to become vocational," he said.

According to Carl McLean, a student backlash will only occur if and when the situation begins to impact drastically on the individual.

"There are arguments on both sides for why people are still going to go to university. They are willing to accept tuition fees because it has come so far down the line. So many people have degrees now that if you don't have one, you can't get ahead. And in spite of all the claims of watering down and devaluing, a lot of them still believe that university is really worth it," he said.

It is because of this unswerving faith in the power of higher education that the majority of today's students are prepared to saddle themselves with thousands of pounds of debt.

"You've got your socialists who are there and they're going to be all militant and saying 'No fees, no fees,' and then you've got your realists who are going to say 'Well, we have to pay to keep the system going, so that we can actually come to university'," said Ronan at Lancaster.

Rowena, an English student at Cambridge, expressed her pride in the tradition of the system. "I was looking at a comparative international survey of other universities and I think it would be a shame if our universities got reduced to anything like theirs are, where 400 in a lecture theatre is comfortable," she said.

Whether the saviours of the system or its scapegoats - it must be borne in mind that today's students are the children of a consumer-led society.

Universities would be wise to make themselves familiar with statutory right number one: the customer is always right.

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