Students get a rough time these days. That, to me, seems almost indisputable.
Yes, laugh, if you must. Cue the violins and so on. But it’s true.
You have probably heard students’ sob stories before:
British students pay the highest tuition fees in the world. British students have just had the terms of their student finance altered retroactively, seeing them pay more still for higher education. In many cases, students receive fewer than 10 hours of contact time per week, to boot – and even the universities minister, Jo Johnson, described some university teaching as “lamentable”.
Then, the final indignity – British students are “represented” by the National Union of Students(!).
Still, though, the UK government is set to lift the £9,000 a year cap on tuition fees. The recently published Higher Education White Paper explains that universities should be free to charge more than £9,000 a year starting from 2017, either in line with inflation or reflecting high-quality teaching.
There are sound intellectual arguments for the proposals. The government wants to promote competition, choice and marketisation. These are laudable, conservative principles that the government supports.
But problems abound. Tuition fees were only just trebled; no other generation has graduated with such mountainous debts – and it is all couched in the ghastly, abstract phrase, a “knowledge economy”.
I was mulling the Higher Education White Paper over this week. I thought that it seemed unwise for the Conservative government to alienate an entire generation, as it could with this move. I thought that it seemed unwise to load more debt on to young graduates, as would be the case with this move. I thought that students would surely look for new means to protest intergenerational inequity, as might be sustained by this move.
Then, a fascinating story emerged that could foreshadow a reshaping of the landscape of higher education in Britain. The story is about an American studying in Sweden called Connie Askenback.
Askenback attended Mälardalen University College in Sweden from 2011 to 2013 to study analytical finance. She, like so many students, was dissatisfied with her course. Her course, like many courses in the UK, was criticised by governmental authorities.
However, only then did Askenback take a radical step. She suspended her studies and sued her university for the cost of her fees plus interest. More than that, she won.
The Västmanland court ruled on Tuesday that the Mälardalen University’s two-year programme in analytical finance that Askenback attended from 2011 to 2013 had “no practical value”. It therefore demanded that the university pay back tuition fees of 170,182 Swedish kronor (£14,000) plus interest.
This is surely a landmark case that could be replicated in the UK. Indeed, the conditions certainly exist for such circumstances to prevail here:
- Expensive tuition fees? Check.
- Student dissatisfaction? Check.
- Government criticism of university courses? Check.
In fact, if anything, the UK would be more fertile ground still than Sweden for this line of argument. That is, the argument that “failing” university courses might be legally compelled, in exceptional circumstances, to refund students. Britain is more receptive to free markets, more receptive to private provision and keener to marketise the higher education sector than much of the Continent.
The government cannot justify its support of market principles in higher education provision without also supporting regulation and the availability of legal redress where higher education institutions fail students.
Where commercial goods and services in free markets are defective, customers and consumers can invoke the law to protect their interests. The ability to invoke laws, to rely on consumer rights, is an essential mechanism in free markets.
By encouraging students to view education as a good or a service, and by encouraging students to act as customers or consumers, the government is foisting this mindset upon students. It is a mindset that is gaining traction around the world, fomented by high tuition fees and demonstrated by Askenback’s case, and it could result in similar cases in the UK.
This is not a call to arms for students. Indeed, as recently as last year, I defended high tuition fees. There are economic imperatives at play here – and crucially, introducing competition and consumer choice into the education sector can drive up standards.
However, perhaps it is inevitable that students – now treated at entry point as customers – will soon look to invoke consumer rights, rather than grumbling among themselves.
With international law beginning to accommodate this theme, it is perfectly possible that the coming years will see a British student employ similar arguments as those used by Askenback. More than that, a student might even win.
The government, so keen to set up an educational free market, might need to be careful what it wishes for.
Johnny is a law student at the University of Bristol (Class of 2017), where he edits the Lifestyle section of Epigram, the student newspaper, and also serves as president of the University of Bristol Conservative Association.