Universities are big, bad businesses: time to get over it


A guy walks into Klute, resplendent in his boat shoes, tanned chinos and quilted Barbour jacket. At the bar he asks for a quaddie, only to find that he can either fork out a whopping £4.50 or chose from a pointless selection of cocktails.

Frustrated, he heads to the dance floor, but is shocked to discover that it is so dark and dingy that he has no idea which peroxide blonde rah girl he previously imposed himself on. Angered by his failure and with Klute’s transformation, he leaves, deciding that next time he will try Loftshack or Academio instead.

Now, obviously this is no laughing matter, as the recent bout of Klute hatred has shown. But, what do you do after leaving an equally unsatisfying lecture or seminar?

Apparently, nothing at all. Durham students have a famous propensity for getting irate about almost nothing, apart from when their favourite club makes a few changes.

Even the planned protest over 38-week lets has been temporarily shelved, most likely because the DSU fears an embarrassingly sparse turnout. Yet this is not about protest. It is about accepting that universities are becoming more business-like with every passing term, and that it’s about time students used that fact to their advantage.

Unhappy about a lecture? Feel like you haven’t been given enough help with your work? Complain. Ask for a refund. Tell your head of department you don’t think a seminar was worth the money. If you deem it necessary, ask your lecturer to buy you a beverage out of courtesy for their educational shortcomings.

Although it’s a shame that universities are no longer what many nostalgically long for them to be, the direction of travel is obvious. Don’t be fooled by universities status as “charities”: universities look like businesses, sound like businesses, and act like businesses. It goes without saying that in an environment where fees will rise to £9,000 and funding has been slashed dramatically, the ‘consumer-service provider’ relationship is an increasingly prevalent one.

Money is now king. Just ask academics about applying for research funding and they’ll tell you there is a unique skill in finding the middle ground between what you want to research and what you can get money for. Universities are also ever more unscrupulous about sourcing finance, understandably desperate for the cash.

In recent years Durham has taken funding from British American Tobacco and the Iranian government, to severe internal criticism from staff; LSE’s involvement with Libya and the Gaddafi family blew up spectacularly last year; and Newcastle encountered condemnation for its investments in arms giant BAE systems.

In the same way that some old-fashioned football fans bemoan the Premier League’s relentless brand promotion, universities now pay similar attention to their “brand”. Virtually all universities in the country have a dedicated media and PR office, which is not only there to clean up the mess when institutions move from public relations blunder to blunder, but to constantly promote and force the university’s image into the public consciousness.

The perpetual stream of merchandising and advertising to come out of Durham are salient examples of this persistent pursuit. This is not to say that the many hundreds of press releases produced each year are not beautifully written, far from it. But Durham protects and promotes its brand with a remarkable voracity. To add to this, the University recently reported an operating “surplus” of £19m last year, which many would regard as a tidy profit.

The evidence is therefore compelling. Universities are businesses, and just like with the new look Klute, it’s time everyone moved on and adapted. At Durham, there was no battle and so the war was lost. But do not despair.

Universities are acutely aware of students’ progressively savvier approach to higher education and are investing where they can as a result. Why do you think Dunelm House is soon to receive a multi-million pound makeover, bankrolled by the University? It’s certainly not because students have demanded it.  The harsh truth is that an empty six-story concrete ogre isn’t exactly attractive to prospective students.

So, filthy lefties and nasty Tories, unite in demanding better teaching, nicer accommodation and greater opportunities where you don’t think things are up to scratch. After all, before long a younger bunch of freshers will be footing most of the bill.

For another view on the relationship between students and big business, read Adam Robertson’s view here: http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=18520


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