What happened after the big student demo of 2010?

Jim Dickinson reflects on a decade of debates about students, consumers and marketisation in higher education.

There has been plenty of discussion, reflection and revisionism to accompany the ten year anniversary of the National Union of Students (NUS) “Fund our Future” national demonstration.

On 10th November 2010 about 50,000 students (about 40,000 more than predicted) appeared in London to protest the coalition’s plans over fees, and the event sparked a series of further student demonstrations that have been theorised about ever since.

But it’s what happened on 11 November 2010 that I want to reflect on here. Back in the day the now-defunct 1994 Group of universities (mostly consisting of medium sized campus-based universities) would sponsor an annual conference on “enhancing the student experience”, partly to cement that group’s positioning as a group of universities that cared about it.

And by coincidence that year’s event (under the bland banner of “managing and exceeding students’ diverse expectations”) took place on the day after the siege of Millbank.

Familiar faces

Much of the agenda and many of the people on it will be familiar, and concerns the (changing) nature of the relationship between students and universities. David Eastwood – Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and Browne Review panel member – was up first selling said review under the headline of “making student choice a reality”. Mary Curnock Cook – then still at UCAS – was there to extoll the virtues of transparent and accurate information.

Derfel Owen – then at QAA and now at UCL – appears to advise on “learning from and understanding your students”, something the agenda describes as “the key to partnership and co-production”. Janice Kay (Exeter) appears with her students’ guild president to advise on the development of student contracts. And Gwen van der Velden – then of Bath and now at Warwick – debates “consuming or shaping one’s education: the role of the student voice”.

It’s almost as if the sector couldn’t work out whether to treat students as partners or consumers – which in many ways was the theme of the speech delivered by an exhausted-sounding NUS president Aaron Porter on the morning after the day before. It’s a fascinating snapshot of the debates still raging on now, and it’s worth looking back on some of the predictions and warnings with the benefit of a decade’s worth of hindsight.

Sold out

Those involved at the time that are desperate now to uncover evidence of NUS president Aaron’s Porter’s “betrayal” and acquiescence to the market might find the recording a disappointing watch. He may have been in a sharp suit and tie, but Porter repeats warnings that NUS had been issuing in preceding years – that marketisation creates winners and losers, that an instrumental view of education was dangerous, that subject choice (particularly in the arts) was under threat and that choice wouldn’t in and of itself drive quality.

And he warned that if we weren’t careful, we would end up with higher education “supply” doing the wrong things for the wrong people in the wrong places:

Browne is completely silent on the questions of what the size, shape and structure of higher education should be in the future. It instead proposes to leave such questions to the invisible hand of the market almost all funding for teaching would be channels as it is said through the student in the form of unlimited fees.

Where critics would get excited is the section on the protections that Porter argued should be in place if there were to be fees and a market. He was concerned, for example, that the systems of Quality Assurance and complaints handling were not fit for the world described by Eastwood earlier in the day:

We can’t seriously believe that the present system of quality assurance is sufficient to deal with the cut and thrust of the new market. It’s just too slow and too distant from the student. I believe a firmer and more direct approach to quality monitoring should be taken, I think that the QAA should have a totally changed structure, and the OIA should remain as an independent complaints body – but we should examine the possibility of creating a network of ombuds with a presence on every campus to make the process more immediate.

As it turned out, external Quality Assurance in England was all but wound down rather than changed – and that the complaints regime hasn’t changed substantially to deliver more support or immediacy feels like a problem now. Should a market regulator exist?

I also want a watchdog that will take a proactive role in market practice in the sector … with a power to refer matters to the OfT or competition commission. If there is cause for concern ranging from high-level action such as the prevention of collusion on price to examining prospectuses and other advertising accuracy and fairness in what they promise.

An Office for Students did of course emerge. But despite “advertising accuracy” appearing as a thread of inquiry in OfS’ paused admissions review, anecdotes of problematic practice and the lack of meaningful and focussed regulation in this area has dogged the sector in the media ever since. If nothing else we’re now eight months into non-stop commentary on mis-selling, refunds and consumer rights during a pandemic, and still we’re no closer to properly understanding students’ rights in this space.

At the time, Porter wanted “serious penalties” for failing to make progress on widening participation, with “hard targets not soft benchmarks”. It took a long time to evolve the regime – and even now it would be hard to disagree with Porter’s decade old conclusion that “most have failed to make any substantial progress”, particularly in the more selective end of the sector.

There were other rights associated with choice that Porter wanted to see strengthened. “Students should also have the legal right to leave an institution” [without penalty] and they should also be able to “move institutions after the first year if they have been misled by the market” – both rights that thousands of students studying through Covid yearn for. He also wanted hidden costs gone, and a ban on additional costs – “if a fee of 9,000 pounds a year isn’t all inclusive, something is badly wrong”. If only students in 2020 were able to recharge their souped up laptop or their HMO heating bll to their university now operating largely closed campuses. And student charters were a thing being worked on, waiting in the wings to be watered down merely months later:

We are working with the sector to develop new guidance on student charters. But that guidance must now set out quite specific and strongly recommend requirements. Charters should be designed and put into use with enforceable minimum standards.

Betrayal?

Full disclosure. I was there as a senior manager at NUS working for Aaron on the day at Demo 2010, and I was there as a senior manager at NUS working for Aaron on the day at Enhancing the Student Experience 2010 – and I can confirm that the contrast between the two days (from “scarf to tie”) felt stark.

The demo – run in conjunction with UCU – was romanticised as being anti-market, embodying the values of educational partnership that many wanted to retain. By contrast, the following day’s speech was decried by sector types present at the event as rejecting all of that – framing students neoliberally, and hegemonically cementing the inevitability of charging students for their education.

That debate has raged ever since, and to this day, many argue that even contemplating market regulation or consumer protection is counter to the basic values that the sector ought to want to espouse and embody. But take away the consumer framing, and what Porter really wanted was to protect students in the market about to emerge. He wanted some student power.

Throughout the decade a number of things that Porter called for tentatively emerged as proposals only to be put back in their boxes. OIA proposed campus ombuds, but was told to stop. Hidden course costs are still hiding in plain sight. Student contracts never did get standardised. And right now hundreds of thousands of students feel like they were lied to over the summer, and don’t feel they have the power to do anything about it – convenient for a government that just a year ago wanted to strengthen those “consumer” rights.

Universities have framed the agenda as antagonistic and a threat to their autonomy and finances. Staff have viewed the agenda as counterproductive, harming their ability to mark robustly or exert academic authority. And governments have always been more comfortable giving course choosers rather than course users the sorts of rights afforded to the users or clients of other sectors like health.

No wonder it’s been so easy to deny students refunds, avoid bailing out the sector, trap students (educationally and apparently physically) on the course they’re on, deny student complaints about quality and keep students paying their rent by pretending that doing so is about their “mental health”. Because it turns out that what academics, universities and governments can agree on is that they would all be happy for students to have more power – just as long as long as that power is wielded on someone other than them.

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