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Righting the wrongs

In this week's narrative on higher education, Phil Pilkington looks at what students are fighting for
This article is more than 5 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

In the 1970s and early 1980s there was a general view amongst students that they were not listened to, and had no  influence on the curriculum.

A sense of defeat of earlier and sporadic student movements to take control of institutions (Essex, LSE, North London Polytechnic, et al) morphed into a students’ movement for Alternative Prospectuses – to provide fellow and potential students with information about their courses, the curriculum content, the teaching staff, and more critically about the values and principles of the course and institution. This was an attempt to engage with the disciplines, and if not to take control of the curriculum then at least to suggest alternative approaches to the subject.

The movement was particularly strong in the humanities, and at its high point the grounds of the disciplines were being contested beyond what was conventional in the UK. We saw calls for the inclusion of postmodernism in literature and architecture, post-colonial approaches in history, geography, anthropology – and the myth of madness post Foucault and Thomas Sasz in psychology. The production of these Alternative Prospectuses, normally published by the local students’ union, had elevated ambitions to critique and take some sort of control of the discourse around academic disciplines amongst students. A recovery of these ephemeral documents would provide a rich source of material for reconstructing higher education between 1970 and 1980.

Enhancing the student experience

Today, the “dark side” of the discourse on improving the student experience (which has been mostly restricted to the teaching-learning relationship) has been expressed as worries about students’ self-image as consumers. Student representatives have always made complaints about academic provision – cancelled lectures, poor turnaround, illegible or irrelevant feedback, offensive or outdated language, antique curricula, inaccessible staff, but there was never any active listening and no “closing the loop” of the quality cycle. Their complaints were dismissed in the past as “nuisance”, or “naïve”. They are dismissed now as “consumerism”.

Students’ unions have long called for student rights outside the academic domain: the presidential campaign to rid the campus toilets of the shiny friction-free toilet paper, good only as tracing paper, was a success; the ‘right’ to drinking water as a ‘human right’ (and it is) in faculty buildings was a long struggle; the poor quality of food (or now, with contracting out of catering, the price of food for a captive market). The case of a president deconstructing a jam doughnut to reveal no jam inside at a students’ union general meeting to demonstrate poor catering standards became the stuff of legends. The alternative prospectus generation rightly combined a consumer rights approach (“these lectures are good/bad”) with a loftier view of the place of the academy within society and the need to change within and outside the academy.

Students aren’t what they used to be

To decry that students’ unions, or students and their elected officers, don’t have those loftier intellectual ambitions today is to ignore the significant changes that have taken place with the academy – not only massified but with academic staff who want to combat the dangers of academic consumerism. We are now a society with legal protections for minorities; of the world, with the end of apartheid and some understanding of the cruelties of colonialism, which students’ unions had some agency in bringing about. The past is another country.

Allegations of mis-selling have been focussed on the claims of “good career prospects” for specific courses, of which it is reasonably doubtful whether that would be an outcome. But that is beside the point to most students, student reps and students’ unions. When students call for services to meet their needs, or to expand those services to meet the demand; when they call for more contact, or better feedback, or somewhere to sit; they are not asking for a better ‘deal’ in the exchange of money for a better ‘student experience’ – they are making claims for rights. The sector, its agencies, its managers, and its staff would all do well to treat those calls for what they really are.

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