Fees to blame for consumer mentality, says new NUS head

'All hell' would break loose if the fee cap were lifted, Wes Streeting tells Rebecca Attwood

April 17, 2008

The relationship between students and their lecturers is changing for the worse, but could be turned around by a fairer university funding regime, according to the next president of the National Union of Students.

Wes Streeting, who succeeds Gemma Tumelty as head of the NUS on 1 July, believes the current top-up fee system is "riddled with inequity" and is to blame for an increasing customer mentality among students.

"I reject the notion of consumerism in education and I think that's only going to be exacerbated if the (£3,000) cap comes off tuition fees," he said in an interview with Times Higher Education.

"Although we're seeing an increase in the consumer mentality among students, I don't think it is too late to stop it and reverse it."

Last week, delegates at the annual NUS conference backed a motion shifting the focus of the union's campaigns away from free education and towards "defeating any attempt to lift the cap, opposing the marketisation of education and campaigning for a fairer funding system for all students".

An amendment to that motion, which was also passed, says that the marketisation of education lies at the heart of the current variable fees model and "must be stopped at all costs".

It was a policy change that the union had to make if it were to have any influence on the debate surrounding next year's review of fees, said Mr Streeting, who has been the union's vice-president for education since 2006, and is a former president of the University of Cambridge student union.

Over the coming months, the NUS will publish a series of alternative funding models. These will involve income-contingent graduate contributions, but not fees.

The union says it will fight for increased public funding to bring the UK in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average.

Mr Streeting, 25, who stood as a Labour student, is frustrated by the two largest political parties' refusal to debate alternative funding options before the next general election.

"I think there is a vacuum of leadership from both the Labour front bench and the Conservative front bench on fees and funding," he said.

"My challenge now for Gordon Brown and David Cameron is: are they willing to move out of their comfort zones and join us in that debate?"

"All hell" would break loose if there were any attempts to lift the tuition fees cap, Mr Streeting vowed. If the cap were to be raised, "we'd see more students choosing courses based on cost rather than suitability, deeper inequities in the student support system - and fundamentally, we'd see the replication of the state-private divide that we see in secondary education".

Mr Streeting also believes that business should pay more for higher education, but through the taxation system rather than via the co-funded courses that the Government backs.

He fears that the current funding model threatens academic freedom.

"I think the real threat is the way in which business can dictate the direction of higher education through the great lever of funding, and that's something I want to look at very seriously."

The union will also fight for an increase in the basic grant. "It is clear to me that bursaries have failed," he said.

"I'd like to see that money rolled into the grant system so that we can have a maximum grant that covers the cost of living for the poorest students, and one that tapers off so that students from lower-middle income backgrounds receive the support that they need."

Mr Streeting also wants to do a deal with university vice-chancellors.

"With declining commercial trading activities, student unions are feeling the pinch like never before," he said.

"I think it would be a wise vice-chancellor who recognises that the student union would be a wise place to invest, because only student unions can be effective agencies for representation of the learner voice."

In return, there is an onus on student unions to ensure they are effectively representing students in all their diversity, he said.

"One of the key objectives is to create a more representative and relevant NUS and one that isn't just seen as a cheerleader for the traditional, but no longer typical, 18 to 21-year-old full-time undergraduate," Mr Streeting promised.

A central plank of the NUS campaign on fees will be for part-time student support to be equivalent to that offered to full-time students.

"I think last time, part-time students were disgracefully overlooked by both the Government, and, it has to be said, by NUS's campaigning for students at the time."

Mr Streeting said the relationship between students and academics was also crucial.

"You only need to look at evidence about student retention rates to recognise what high-quality teaching, a good personal relationship and good tutorial support can do," said the former student of Selwyn College, Cambridge, who was the first person in his family to go to university.

Better funding for universities and better pay and resources for academic staff could help reverse the deteriorating relationship, he said.

"Academics are often working longer hours, on relatively low pay. Academics themselves acknowledge that they don't have the same personal relationships with students that they once had. Bringing back that sense of personalised learning has to be at the forefront of our learning and teaching strategy."

The predicted dip in student numbers as a result of the demographic downturn could even be a golden opportunity.

"Rather than looking at this as an opportunity to make economies, I think universities should look at keeping staff numbers the same to readjust the student-to-staff ratio," Mr Streeting said.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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