Who gains from the grumbles?

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“My students have paid £9,000 and now they think they own me” runs the headline. It’s one of those anonymous pieces, so the wider context is difficult to figure out, but the author seems troubled by a message that reads “all I’m asking for is a little respect seeing as I pay you £9,000 a year”.

It’s the “blunt, consumerist language” that offends the author, and a number of anecdotes follow, each reinforcing this interpretation. “If you ask me,” quips a colleague in the car park, “all universities are going to need a customer services department before long”. Another claims a student once told them: “I pay you to teach me what’s in the article, not the other way around”. The author recalls how very different they had “acted and spoke” when at university – assignments were completed punctually, guidelines followed diligently, etc. How they wish they could say the same of their students now.

It’s familiar rhetoric on English campuses, and the points about unfair workload allocation, expectations of across-the-board excellence, and often counter-productive management culture all deserve to be made forcibly and repeatedly to policy-makers, sector representatives and intuitional leadership teams. But venting at students about how universities are funded is like confronting fellow passengers because your train is running late.

Remember, the student’s plea is not for higher grades, quicker feedback or the guarantee of a graduate job, but for “a little respect”. Is this really a case of neoliberal higher education policy coming home to roost? Or is it something altogether more localised and petty?

Perhaps the student was wrong to mention fee levels at all. But let’s not forget the extent to which the 2012 funding system has driven higher education to “hurl the cost of itself at graduates”, as Jim Dickinson recently noted on this site. According to the Sutton Trust, only one in twenty will now repay their debt in full by the age of 40, compared to almost 50% under the previous system. An average teacher will still owe £25,000 by their early 50s. The freezing of the repayment threshold will make an undergraduate degree more costly still and, last year, we saw maintenance grants turned into loans and student nurses stripped of their bursaries.

It’s naïve to believe that such wholesale reconfiguration of the way in which our sector is funded won’t disrupt the nature of undergraduates’ engagement with their university or change academics’ working conditions. That’s exactly why our students were placed at the heart of the system – so they’d behave like consumers and enact the marketisation agenda.

However, in many respects, they’ve refused to play ball. Take the proposal to link success in the Teaching Excellence Framework to higher fees. The National Union of Students objected immediately, taking a position of principled disengagement long before the rest of the sector began to follow suit. Yes, there are some individual undergrads who’ll seize their rights as newly-empowered service users to make unreasonable demands on staff as they seek to maximise their return-on-investment. But there are millions of others who don’t measure their experience in solely utilitarian terms and want their time at university to be inspiring, cordial and enlightening.

The nameless author of the piece fantasises about replying with: “Hey student – all I’m asking for is a little respect, seeing as how much you pay makes no difference to my wages, yet the level of support I am forced to offer you takes up 80% of my time despite the fact that teaching still only equates to 33% of my workload.”

Is support for students really something that academics are “forced” to offer? And if we must gripe about our salaries, might it be judicious to acknowledge the inter-generational unfairness that the current funding model precipitates?

But the bigger question here is who gains from such grumbles. A frostier relationship between students and academics doesn’t benefit those who yearn for campuses of old. Rather, it benefits those who seek to marketise and instrumentalise the sector further. Undergraduates can be framed as dissatisfied customers, then as budding agents of change, while academics can be positioned as ivory-towered and over-protected. Many of the 4,000+ comments beneath the original piece offer precisely this reading.

But the student-academic relationship at English universities is surely stronger than such simplistic polarisations allow. Is a little respect really too much to ask for?

3 thoughts on “Who gains from the grumbles?”

  1. The problem isn’t that a little respect is too much to ask for. The problem is that unreasonable requests (in the case of the Guardian article, it seems it was a request for an extension that was evidently turned down) are rebranded as the apparently reasonable request for ‘a little respect’. To miss that is to miss the point of the article.

    It’s easy to think of more examples:

    ‘You’re not available outside your scheduled office hours. All I’m asking for is a little respect.’
    ‘You gave me a 2:2 but I think this work deserves a 2:1. All I’m asking for is a little respect.’

    The whole point (which Steven Jones seems to have missed) is that ‘a little respect’ is not too much to ask for — but that what’s being asked for isn’t actually ‘a little respect’.

  2. amcrae2014 says:

    Thank you: that’s a really helpful response. What struck me about The Guardian piece was that there was very little appreciation of the fact that academics have some control over the nature of the student-staff relationship. The discourse of contract will always be available, and easy enough to deploy for tactical gain. But we might instead think, from day one of our interactions with students, of academic communities. This, for what it’s worth, is the way the NSS is heading (see my comments at: https://headofdepartmentblog.wordpress.com/2015/10/13/out-goes-enthusiasm-in-comes-engagement-the-national-student-survey-of-the-future/). It’s also, in my experience, what most students actually want. Indeed, the more they pay, arguably, the more they want a more positive alternative to a consumerist model. (And that seems to be the evidence from the US.) Plenty of universities now have ‘contracts’; we’ve been thinking instead in terms of an ‘ethos’ (see some comments at: https://headofdepartmentblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/05/every-student-is-a-potential-plagiarist-discuss/). There’s a lot to be gained, it seems to me, if we tackle this openly and positively.

    1. Steven Jones says:

      Thank you for your feedback (and also for the links to your blog posts).

      I agree with your point about the ‘discourse of contract’ being easy to deploy for tactical gain, and I also hope that a positive alternative to the consumerist model emerges. It seems to me that students are no less uneasy with the language of the market than academics, and that this is potential shared ground from which to buck dominant ideology.

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