Back in 1999, then Prime Minister Tony Blair made it his ambition that half of the country’s young people should go to university. In doing so, he made universities a silver bullet solution: it was ‘Education, Education, Education’ that could cure the nation’s ills. Universities became the UK’s lifeboats.

Dreams Really Do Come True …

Blair’s dream has, almost, been realised. Nationally, 46.8 per cent of young people were in higher education by the age of 19 in 2021/22. However, this dream has brought nightmarish consequences. In 1999, Blair could hardly have foreseen that the fees for universities would rise to a shocking £9,250 per year and that universities would come to operate on a ruthless corporate logic that has gutted them of their original civic purpose.

This summer, the capitalist logic that universities have come to operate on has been brutally exposed to the country via the UCU strike. For those that haven’t already heard, the University and College Union has implemented a marking boycott. What this means for students is that their final summer exam grades will be unknown so long as members of staff are striking. Already across the UK, students have ‘graduated’ but don’t know their marks, their degree classification or even whether they have passed. At my university (Edinburgh), thousands have graduated not knowing their grades, resulting in dramatic protests at graduations. For students who have jobs lined up conditional on gaining a  specific classification, or visas that depend on getting a pass, it’s been an incredibly uncertain situation. This latest debacle also reveals a shocking neglect of students’ welfare.

Importantly, this is not some random strike action out of the blue. No, this has been steadily building. During my four years at Edinburgh, not one year has been unaffected by strike action. Mostly, the strikes have taken the form of traditional strikes — that is, the restriction of teaching. And most of the time, these strikes have not made national news. The marking boycott taken this summer is seen by many as the UCU’s nuclear option: it was unthinkable to most that students would be allowed to graduate without a valid degree mark. That benchmark has now been passed, and with it, the death knell of Tony Blair’s dream has rung.

A Crisis In Identity

The brute truth is that universities have lost their original purpose as educators. They have become asset managers and landlords. For the management of universities, their primary purpose is to enlarge the colossal wealth of universities’ portfolios: their endowments, their properties, and all their various other assets. Teaching becomes a secondary factor that — if you were being exceptionally cynical — serves only the purpose of ensuring the charitable status conferred on universities and the various tax breaks that come with it. Whether you see this as pure avarice or an unfortunate consequence of Blair’s policies doesn’t really matter. We are firmly in a reality where universities operate on a purely capitalist basis. As such, lecturers and staff have consistently had their pay cut and pensions threatened. Naturally, unions have used all means available to them to bargain for better working conditions. But this has come at the expense of the student.

From cyclical strike action to a full-blown pandemic to a marking boycott, students who have been in higher education these past five years or so have faced constant teaching disruptions. Having gone into significant debt for a disrupted education, the union is now holding students’ futures (repaying that debt) hostage to gain better pay. Now, this isn’t to say I don’t sympathise with the plight of lecturers. On the contrary, I absolutely believe that universities must return to their original purpose as civic institutions benefitting the public good in order to survive. What confuses me about this method of striking is that it actually enforces the capitalist logic it claims to decry. Let me explain.

Many students view university as a necessity; a requirement imposed on them so that they can get a job. In other words, these historical bastions of education are now largely seen as a means to an end — like buying a train ticket to get to another place. As such, most students see themselves as consumers buying a service. The service has now been disrupted by strike action so, naturally, plenty of students are angry at the union and the university management for not fixing the pay issue. But the subsequent strike action only reaffirms the suspicion that students are seen as consumers of a service that can easily be denied them. There is no higher educational goal or civic solidarity. Ruthless corporate logic appears to have taken over entirely.

Strike To Make Better Not Worse

Striking shouldn’t damage young people’s prospects. How about a strike that threatens to award every student a First? Something like this would tarnish any university’s reputation and integrity almost instantly, but at least it would have a less disruptive effect on the students themselves. Tactics like these are not ideal, but they might be able to return the universities’ original purpose back to them.

As a graduate student, I can only say that the university experience has become more expensive but also more worthless. I really hope that this is the bottom. A less money-driven approach is urgently required to break out of the current impasse. Seeing students as consumers is not what universities should be teaching.

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