Who’s behind “Stop the Student Rip Off”?

Jack Harvey is a Student Voice Rep Coordinator at Coventry University Students' Union (CUSU)

An early Christmas present for first-year students at the University of Manchester – after weeks of protests and complaints, those living in halls will receive a 30 per cent reduction to their rents.

The SU clearly made much of the running, the local student newspaper, The Mancunion, credited the victory to two campaign groups – but the Chief Editor of the local Manchester Gazette credited the success to a group you probably didn’t expect.

The Brexit Party – or, as it hopes to be known, Reform UK – is behind a brand new social media campaign, which launched in late November. It says that all students are owed a discount on tuition and halls of residence fees after their universities “ripped them off”.

In these dire times, will “Stop the Student Rip-Off” lead to widespread refunds? Probably not. So why does the Brexit Party want to push the issue?

Unlikely reformers

Satisfied that a pro-Brexit PM commanding a large parliamentary majority could deliver what it wanted, the Brexit Party declared this year that it was time, under a fresh name, to tackle another pressing problem. It would oppose the various national restrictions and lockdowns put in place to respond to the coronavirus pandemic (which were imposed by the same pro-Brexit PM commanding a large parliamentary majority.)

The Party is composed of characters from across the political spectrum. The shared commitment to one big goal is why a former Revolutionary Communist, now a crossbench peer, could campaign comfortably alongside former candidates for the Conservatives and UKIP. But the focus on one political issue, major and contentious as it was, made it hard for the Party’s other ideas to be heard.

The Party paid little attention to higher education before 2020. Its only contribution was a vow to scrap interest on tuition fee loans, a nice idea dwarfed by some other party’s plan to ditch tuition fees entirely. So for the Party to now insist on a 30 per cent refund could be an evolution in the party’s thinking, one moving away from the treatment of universities as businesses.

Or maybe it’s a crafty new campaign on the back of popular sympathy for “locked-up” students. What does its top brass have to say?

Culture vultures

The leader of the party needs no introduction, but his newfound pity for suffering students does. It certainly doesn’t fit with his other opinions on universities.

Not long before the academic year began, Nigel Farage was nattering away with the sort of writers and thinkers who take a particular view of universities: that they are brainwashing facilities where critical thinking has been replaced by rabid leftwing dogma, conformity and fear.

This is a view to which Farage is partial. Universities themselves are places of “constant bias, prejudice and brainwashing,” Farage said at a Brexit Party rally last year, adding that something should be done about the “outrageous, outrageous,” fact “that students are marked down, that students are held up to ridicule, because they happen to support Brexit.”

Not the biggest fan of the academy, then. But Farage isn’t too keen on students either. “As anyone who follows the news knows, universities these days are pretty confused and confusing places thanks to the attitudes of the snowflake generation attending them,” he wrote for the Daily Telegraph in late 2017.

“Whether students are campaigning to erase history via the Rhodes Must Fall movement, or insisting on gender neutral lavatories, it’s clear you don’t stand a chance if you are in any way perceived to be on the “wrong” side. In many cases, this includes the EU question.”

Given all this, it seems bizarre for Farage now to break out his violin and play for the poor students. Are they misled consumers or misguided culture warriors? Do they deserve our pity for a term of imprisonment in halls, or our scorn and mockery for their snowflake ways?

Maybe someone else has come up with the party’s new agenda. After all, party chairman Richard Tice (who has his own views on our fine universities) says that they are responding to all of the stories of hardship that they’ve received from young people across the country. So that’s all right, then. Fight the good fight. But what stories of hardship are these?

Don’t I know you?

The party is keen to share the stories of the “dozens” of students who have shared their lockdown woes. In videos released online, we meet some of the struggling students and hear their “lockdown horror stories”.

First, Dominique, in her final year of a degree at York. For the viewers at home, this is Dominique Samuels, formerly an influencer at hooray-for-free-markets youth group Turning Point UK, then a co-founder of the free-markets-have-spoiled-the-good-things-in-life Orthodox Conservatives and someone who has quite literally followed in the footsteps of then-Brexit Party leader, now Reform UK leader, Nigel Farage.

Then there’s Oscar, who tells us about police roaming his campus, “tests which haven’t come for ten days” (coronavirus tests or academic tests?) and evictions at Sussex. This is Oscar Holdway-Lopez, a pro-Brexit activist and occasional broadcaster for Turning Point UK. He also leads a chapter of the organisation at his university.

You could consider Caleb Standen, a student at Queens University, Belfast, who thinks it’s fair to ask for a refund in light of how the coronavirus pandemic and university restrictions have affected students’ mental health. Joseph Fash tells us about similar problems at Exeter. Do they happen to be the writers Caleb Standen and Joseph Fash for The Point News, an offshoot of that little-known student activist group – you guessed it – Turning Point UK?

Maybe it’s sheer coincidence that so many of the students who have bravely come forward to tell Reform UK about their experiences are former campaigners for the Brexit Party or members of obscure right-wing groups with whom important Brexit Party figures have rubbed shoulders. That, or the party hasn’t really had that many students write to them to share their experiences.

It’s 30 per cent, Chris

Who picked the 30 per cent figure and why? There’s no explanation given here, not in the campaign material or on the party-to-be’s website. There, students are asked to write to their vice-chancellor, the local paper and their MP, “setting out why you are being badly treated, not getting the education you paid for and demanding a 30% discount” which would apply to “tuition and halls of residence fees.”

Forgive the pedantry, but we really need more detail in this campaign. Which students, in Reform UK’s eyes, deserve a refund? Just the ones who live in halls? Should international students ask for 30% of the grossly higher fees they pay to study here?

Should students in the private sector send letters to their landlords, asking for money back? Remember that many of those living in houses have to pay their own bills, whereas students in halls pay for everything in one package. If you live off-campus, does Sky owe you 30 per cent on your WiFi?

Do I deserve 30 per cent off my fees if I voted “Remain” or is it exclusive to those Brexit-voting students against whom, Farage would contend, their universities so wickedly discriminate?

Why 30 per cent? What’s the reason? Maybe it’s this – students are roughly through a third of the academic year, so they deserve a third of their money back. Fair enough, though if the pandemic continues until, say, March, and nothing changes to how students learn, would that mean that students are due a 60 per cent refund? At what point does the campaign stop? Would it ask for a 100 per cent refund if the pandemic continued until July? We know students have had a rubbish year, but how bad a kicking should we give those nasty universities before we spoil things for the students of 2021?

Reforming the band(wagon)

What fresh thinking has Reform UK brought to the debate? Very little, it turns out.

We’ve no reason to believe a campaign as thin and limp as this is really on the side of students. Rather, it looks like another dabble in populism – another move to capture a mood of sympathy for someone out there struggling. Farage is adept to using populism as Cadbury’s is adept to using cocoa – it’s hard to believe that he no those around him have ever have felt compassion for students, only shock and anger toward the illiberal, malicious student about which so much guff is written in the papers Farage reads.

Reform UK wants to make waves with a new campaign, fighting for the poor student wronged by the big bad vice-chancellor. The campaign is designed for the 2020 intake and the rubbish start to the year they’ve had, all in time for Christmas, when most students return home and, this year especially, wonder whether it’s worth going back.

But the campaign tries so barely to be one from the grassroots. The students lending the campaign their faces and testimonies just so happen to be longtime Brexit supporters, activists and party members, for some of whom Farage has campaigned for other strange interests and causes. What chance does Reform UK have to “stop the student rip-off”? I doubt it’s anything like 30 per cent.

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