The academic year of 2020-21 has seen a high level of dissatisfaction towards the higher education system spill out into the public sphere. Over the past several years, the rise of student fees and rental rates across the U.K for student housing that is often sub-standard has caused students to have to pursue part time work to fund their academic progress. The arrival of COVID-19, and the sweeping job losses that followed, impacted students in particular, with this financial safety net now taken away. With the past year exacerbating social tensions across the board, public attention to the impact on University life has waxed and waned, but perhaps the issues COVID has compounded need further investigation. Staff and students alike have faced their own difficulties with the higher education system. I want to discuss how dissatisfaction has built up dramatically over the past number of years, and how Higher Education’s reputation is at risk.
Student dissatisfaction predates COVID
My experience in higher education, from September 2017 to the present day, revealed a chasm between the institutions’ figureheads, and those who staff and students who effectively rely on for the survival of higher education. Three separate rounds of strike action by the University and Colleges Union led to the largest ever university strike around the instability of their pensions. Like Higher Education itself, through tuition fee hikes and cuts to government grants, lecturer’s pensions were now becoming subject to the market and were no longer secure. Students were being faced with the bleak reality: that what they had fought so hard to achieve – a place at university – was at risk of being damaged due to institutional negligence towards staff and students. Witnessing the plight of lecturers in the UCU strike action was my first realisation of this; the break between the kind, welcoming faces of students and staff, and the scarcely seen figures who pulled the strings of these institutions.
Alongside UCU strikes, student financial strain is also reaching its tipping point.
Increased student fees and rental rates have taken their toll on students within the Higher Education system, reaching a tipping point in the most recent academic year. In the run up to September, and the prospective return to student accommodation, no clarification was given to students regarding face-to-face teaching, until they had been forced to commit to accommodation contracts. Then, for the vast majority, they were told that they would not have any face-to-face teaching, but would still have to fulfil their rental contacts. Landlords and universities ignored the plight of their students, who were now under increased financial pressure. Students’ money is central to both landlords’ and universities’ revenue streams, yet when help was needed, students were flatly ignored.
A mixture of the closure of businesses and loss of jobs due to COVID-19, the lack of face-to-face teaching, and paying rent for an empty room clearly took its strain on the student population. Students realised that they would have to stand up for themselves, and at 55 universities students combined their efforts in a rent strike, the largest tenant action in 40 years in the UK. Thanks to this radical action, some students were finally heard; many were compensated within university-owned accommodation, but others remained ignored by the private rental sector.
Higher Education has become a two-tier system.
While students and staff have been facing fights for financial security, university institutions have been increasingly shuffling funds into the back pockets of their Vice Chancellors. To many students, their Vice Chancellor is merely the signature at the end of an important email; an anonymous figure who you probably will not meet until the day of your graduation, should you be so lucky to have one. So why then, is the average wage for a Russell Group Vice Chancellor £380,000, with Imperial College, London topping the board with an annual wage of £554,000?
The astronomical wage of Vice Chancellors is not a new thorn in the side of struggling students. In 2017 at the University of Bath, students became increasingly financially strained, while their Vice-Chancellor at one stage was the highest paid in the country. Once again, these ignored students solved their plight by taking matters into their own hands, and unseated her. The accumulation of brushing off UCU pension strikes, ignoring students in severe financial difficulty and lining the pockets of the top brass, higher education has increasingly become a two-tier system. It is not hard to tell who is benefitting and who it not.
All of this paints a grim picture for how the public sees our university system. The illusory notion of Higher Education as a hard-earned reward has burst, its credibility as a meritocratic system run by people who care about knowledge and learning going with it. Increasing financial strain on students, instability in security for staff alongside the lining of pockets of Vice Chancellors has revealed the Higher Education institutions as becoming like the market itself, unstable and unsatisfying. Recent years have revealed the true image of higher education, a disappointing wizard behind the curtain in The Land of Oz. If the higher education system wants to recapture the trust of those who work and attend universities up and down the UK, major reforms to stabilise its clear systemic financial flaws will be necessary.
Read more current affairs content from The New Collection here.