27K for an expiring library card?

By Abdulla Omaigan

If I told you that the current UK government, as well as university managers across the country, treats us university students as consumers, you really wouldn’t be surprised, would you?

It’s part of a phenomenon that academics like to call the ‘marketisation of higher education’; but more importantly, it’s one that university students have carried the burden of for a while now.

The introduction of tuition fees and the constant threat of them rising (until recently, at least); the hallmarks of university branding and its attempts to recruit a never-ending sea of students; annual module feedback forms and the National Student Survey (read: student satisfaction questionnaires). All of these contemporary aspects of university life, one way or another, treat us as consumers of a product. And the list really does go on.

All contemporary aspects of university life treat us as consumers of a product.

Despite nearly always being treated and expected to act like a consumer in these ways, what you may be surprised to hear is that we have fewer consumer rights than we believe we do.

Sure, we have the right to information about prospective and current university programmes: the structure of them, the modules on offer, the different types of assessment, the promising list of graduate destinations (one of which we hope will end up our very own). And we also have a right to the resources of a higher educational institution if we are granted a place and successfully make our way through our chosen degree programme.

What we don’t seem to have consumer rights to, however, is lifelong access to university resources. Our beloved (or not so beloved) books, journal articles and archives, our online learning platforms and all of the resources that they contain, and in some cases maybe even our email addresses which hold three years’ worth of insight (and I’m sure much junk, too).

Now, you might think: who on earth wants access to this material and why should it be granted?

The question of who is simple: students progressing onto postgraduate study without access to an adequate local library in the meantime; students who are hanging about or working for the summer period in their university town and want to keep reading; or more broadly, just any student that went to university because they love to learn, regardless of where they are.

What we don’t seem to have consumers rights to, however, is lifelong access to university resources.

The question of why is even simpler: any of us graduating within the last fourteen years have paid between £9,000 and £27,000 for a three-year undergraduate degree, plus additional fees upwards of £5,000 for those of us who continue onto postgraduate study.

And you can bet that international students are paying even more of a premium price.

But what does all of this amount to? A piece of paper that may just land us our dream job (or not) and unfortunately in some cases such as Durham University, an expiring library card too.

That’s why I created a YouTube video on the matter, ranting about how ludicrous this all is as part of my attempts to break down educational problems for public debate and decisions. In the video, I explain how graduates being unable to continue to access library resources and our infamous online learning platform – DUO – does not chime well with how universities brand themselves to us. Yes, they are institutions with a long history of fore-fronting learning. But no, not all of them are committed to enabling this thirst for knowledge and understanding that they, with no surprises, expect us to commit to in our daily lives (ahem, I mean: essays).

Not all universities are committed to enabling this thirst for knowledge and understanding.

Even beyond this goal, scholars, policy-makers and (as of recently) university managers alike talk the talk when it comes to being democratic citizens. But how are we supposed to uphold our democratic duties – especially within an ever-expanding knowledge economy – when we do not have access to the building blocks of that very kind of society?

But hey, university branding rarely aligns with the reality of what’s on offer.

I’ll soon be starting a petition to ask that all universities give us lifelong access to online resources after we graduate and that, in busy periods for current university students, we still get some access – even if limited – to physical resources too.

Photograph: Grace Shih-Chia Tseng, Palatinate@Flickr via Flickr 

3 Responses

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  1. nemo
    Jul 27, 2018 - 09:58 AM

    And this is why why treating students as consumers is a terrible idea: they start acting and thinking like consumers, even when (as the writer readily acknowledges) they’re not consumers at all. Those of us who work on the sharp end of the system don’t like that model either. It’s one imposed on us by the encroachment of corporatism, and an accompanying legislative environment that fixates on how everything and anything can be monetised.

    The other part of this is that the access to the facilities and the benefits that go with them is what you are paying fo when you pay those fees. You’re also paying for the privilege of being assessed, but there you are. It’s rather like engaging a barrister. You don’t pay for what they do, you pay for the level of skill they bring.. I’m afraid if you want to retain access to the facilities after you finish being a student, you’re going to have to pay for them too. It really isn’t just about giving someone a campus card and letting them show up. Buildings need maintenance, and all those journals and subscription services are expensive. It’s those tuition fees (at least in part) that pay for them. Using that Neo-liberal mindset, how comfortable are you subsidising those benefits for people who (like me) didn’t have to pay for them up-front when they were here? And there are facilities available to allow visitor access to such facilities in many libraries anyway.

    That said, I do think there needs to be a rethink about the relationship between universities and their alumni. Durham is (like Oxbridge) a bit different to most places because of the separate and special relationships between alumni and the institution as a whole and individual college-alumnus relationships. How universities engage with alumni, and how those alumni want to engage in return is an issue that British institutions have been historically bad at. But, unlike US institutions, we also don’t see alumni as a resource to be milked after they have left either

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  2. Sally Flannery
    Jul 27, 2018 - 03:24 PM

    Yes!!!!! This has upset me for so long. I had a 2 year gap between my BA and MA and how do you think my “lifelong inquisitiveness” fared then? While recovering from international tuition fees and trying to find the right MA program? I’ll tell you — it suffered. My local library only gave me access to the OED (otherwise I’d have paid $295 per year to subscribe). Luckily I live near the University of Texas and I begged them to let me have an alumni library card (although I did NOT go there) and I got to use their physical library. But not their online resources (this is a problem in the USA too.) Which means no recent scholarship. So when the chancellor of Durham University told us at our graduation to stay curious, to keep learning even when we leave these hallowed walls, I was like—okay, HOW. In the school of life? I’ve just been trained to have some hardcore research abilities and now I can’t use them? Nope nope nope. Walk the walk, guys. And FYI the University of York deleted my undergrad email so ALL my emails from professors have been lost so there’s that advice gone. For my MA I forwarded everything to a private email because I learned THAT lesson the hard way. So wrong.

    Reply
  3. Sally Flannery
    Jul 27, 2018 - 03:26 PM

    Yes!!!!! This has upset me for so long. I had a 2 year gap between my BA and MA and how do you think my “lifelong inquisitiveness” fared then? While recovering from international tuition fees and trying to find the right MA program? I’ll tell you — it suffered. My local library only gave me access to the OED (otherwise I’d have paid $295 per year to subscribe). Luckily I live near the University of Texas and I begged them to let me have an alumni library card (although I did NOT go there) and I got to use their physical library. But not their online resources (this is a problem in the USA too.) Which means no recent scholarship. So when the chancellor of Durham University told us at our graduation to stay curious, to keep learning even when we leave these hallowed walls, I was like—okay, HOW. In the school of life? I’ve just been trained to have some hardcore research abilities and now I can’t use them? Nope nope nope. Walk the walk, guys.

    Reply

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