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