Students calling for fee rebates over strikes is not anti-union

Niall Hignett is a first year Durham Law student, political activist, and freelance journalist

They say even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan’s condemnation of the “eye-watering” and “staggering” salaries of vice chancellors – that’s the first clock hand alignment. The idea that where courses do not deliver what is promised, students should be entitled to tuition fee rebates – that’s the second.

During the pandemic, online learning generated significant dissatisfaction amongst students. Many were still subscribed to cash-cow accommodation schemes (despite being confined to their hometown homes) and were paying excessively for e-learning.

The quality of the teaching – and your stance on how good it was or terrible it was – is not the issue at hand. Rather, the precedent was set that where there is dissatisfaction with degree courses, rebates are in order.

Over £800,000 was refunded to students claiming money back due to a supposed lack of quality service. This opens the floodgates. Tuition fee rebates should be standard where standards are inadequate.

The broken clock

The Westminster government has pursued its marketisation scheme, with a neo-liberal “consumer choice” market its preferred model of higher education. We know the immense costs to staff – which led to 44 UCU branches voting to participate in marking boycotts earlier in the term.

The cost to students has also been deep. Growing staff-student ratios, rising costs, and, more recently, regulator investigations over whether degrees are worth the money. Of course, the said chimeless tocker forcing universities to use students to financially exist, and then condemning them for doing just that, is quite the turnaround.

But that hypocrisy does not particularly matter. The truth is students are facing paying more for a worse service – indebting themselves for life for year-on-year reduced contact hours, and deliberate over-subscription to line universities’ pockets.

Mickey mouse degrees

As anybody who values education knows, the notion that degrees are worthless, purely because students aren’t number crunching or mooting, is absurd. The Office for Students attempting to lacerate some degrees for their lack of value at the behest of ministers, is likely a cynical attempt to justify the foreclosure of accessible education, and a return to the old boy’s club era of higher education (which was very slowly beginning to fizzle out).

What does come to fruition, however, is the levels of service promised not being delivered. That is not to say that, perhaps, English literature is a worthless degree. It is to say that in most universities it is taught on the cheap to subsidise other courses. This must be addressed. Students being used by management as coins to the industry, without the means to object to such audacious over-charging, flies in the face of our newly marketised model.

Universities charging over the odds, whilst having students in a stranglehold by imposing worse services, is the sector’s management attempting to have their cake and eat it. The covid precedent of dissatisfaction leading to rebates must be implemented more widely.

Industrial action

Where the precedent needs to be expanded is industrial action. This year, I have lost 18 days of teaching to strike action. That’s roughly 15 percent of my teaching days. One way of breaking that down means £1387.50 of the money I’ve spent on my degree this year not being provided to me. If I were an international student on the same programme, it would be £3,225 of services not provided, yet paid upfront for.

At a handful of universities, students face not graduating due to ongoing marking boycotts – they are potentially not receiving the degree they have paid for. This would mean that the standard £27,750 degree would deliver nothing.

When, in the words of Michelle Donelan, vice chancellors receive “staggering” wages (nearly £300,000 at my university), it is more remarkable they have failed to make use of their multi-billion pounds surplus to deliver the degree, and degree programs, students have paid their institution for. Where VCs are failing to deliver, there must be an expectation students will receive their money back.

Fee rebates are not anti-union. Some believe asking for tuition fee rebates undermines union activity. I believe it does the exact opposite. Universities operate as businesses. Their choice to ignore the demands of staff is because it remains financially viable to do so. If, each time staff voted for industrial action, the university were forced to issue rebates, they would be caught in a fiscal catch-22, and would be more inclined to listen to their staff, to avert multi-million pound rebates.

Further, the concern that these measures would damage staff-student relations is unfounded. It could be posited that this would lead to students and academics at odds with one another. On the contrary, I believe it aligns their interests further – students would no longer “lose out” (in a sense) from industrial action, and would have a greater stake in resolving any disputes.

The blame game

A standard rebuttal is a self-victimising management attempting to guilt-trip students over the amassing omnishambles. The marketisation of universities has forced them into a corner, some argue. Others, like QMUL, are ardently pursuing a union-busting line – it’s lecturers fault students are not getting their degree courses and services paid for. How dare they want fair pay and conditions, eh?

Ultimately, who is responsible in the eyes of management is immaterial. Students pay a university for their services. It is up to the university to deliver that service. If they fail to do so, the buck starts and stops with the service provider – the university.

The bottom line is that where the fiscal bottom line is prioritised over service, customers deserve refunds. In an ideal world, tuition fees would not exist, and the government would fund research and education, for both investment and human rights. But we don’t live in an ideal world – we live in one full of broken clocks.

Leave a Reply