Reece Parker: The pitfalls of education marketisation

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Universities nationwide are set to be rocked by industrial action, the scale of which has never been seen before.

Staff from 61 universities are preparing to strike, staging fourteen days of walkouts over a period of four weeks. The protests have been triggered by changes to staff pensions, notably the introduction of a ‘defined contributions scheme’. This, according to Students’ Union UCL, will mean that staff’s financial security in retirement will ‘depend entirely on stock market gambling by fund managers’.

Elsewhere, the Universities and College Union, the organisation behind the strike, have estimated that these changes could cost a typical lecturer £10,000 a year.

Industrial action on universities campuses is not a new concept in any way shape or form. The primary aim of the strike, to put pressure on Vice-Chancellors, who can then work as a pressure group to facilitate less harsh reform, is a simple and obvious tactic.

However, the scale of this walkout has prompted a secondary reaction, this one within the student body, which could see a very different power dynamic in the university system moving forwards.

In an unprecedented move, many students across multiple universities have suggested that they should receive compensation for the periods of study they will miss.

One of these students is Georgia Davies, a 21 year old joint honours student at the University of St Andrews. She has claimed that “I get 12 hours a week in lectures and tutorials which means that a single hour costs me £32. Consequently 14 days of action is the equivalent to not getting £768 of face-to-face contact with my lecturer”.

Elsewhere, Conrad White, a York student, has launched an online petition recalling for students to be reimbursed, which currently has over 3000 signatures.

Conrad’s position on the strike was one shared by many students, frustrated that he was potentially losing out on contact hours, but perceiving that the University management was to blame, stating “The university wants it both ways: they want to take the tuition fees money and behave like a business in that way, but then not offer students consumer rights.”

It is here that we arrive at the crux of what this issue is about. When entering into the new Teaching Excellence Framework at the start of this academic year and committing to new levels of marketisation within education, this was almost certainly an unforeseen possibility.

With students now treated as consumers who are utilising a pre-paid service, if the university fails to deliver on their side of the promise to provide a suitable level of education, then why shouldn’t they have to provide a refund?

It is becoming clear that we may have reached a situation where marketisation has actually created a stronger bargaining position for unions moving forward, where strike action could be compounded with compensation payments.

Reece Parker is Editor-in-Chief at The Gryphon at Leeds University.