Politicised students are a nightmare for the government – any ​attempt to neutralise them is doomed

Feb 28, 2018 by

Zoe Williams –

Tuition fees were meant to pit teachers and learners against each other. Instead, they have bound them together in solidarity

The most interesting thing in a damning report often doesn’t end up as its talking point. Damnation is so fun, it’s hard to prioritise. So when the Commissioner for Public Appointments looked into the selection criteria for the board of the Office for Students, all the fireworks focused on Toby Young. Pugnacious in the noughties but curiously sensitive this decade, upset by mere mention of the anal sex jokes that only a short time ago were his stock in trade, Young was the beneficiary of a process that we could have all hazarded a guess at, but now have on paper: Jo Johnson, the universities minister, told him to apply. Justine Greening’s objections were overruled. The other candidates were discounted by a process with “serious shortcomings in fairness and transparency”. As if by magic, the least-suited person was suddenly the best imaginable, like Ivanka Trump in South Korea, or Tom Hanks in Big.

Less was said about the panel’s decision on its choice of a student representative: in the selection process, it explicitly excluded anyone who had been involved with the National Union of Students. Nothing about this blacklist appeared in the advert for candidates, of course, because it would have made them look crazy; what kind of Office for Students discounts anyone who has shown an interest in the collective lot of students? Yet secret criteria aren’t a great look, either, signifying something in the region of bottomless distrust of the student body.

The government made a choice in 2010 to re-imagine higher education as a commodity: a degree became a career-investment, lecturers became mind-wealth delivery systems, and students became customers. Brandon Lewis, minister without portfolio, told Question Time last week that he had advised his son to “act as a consumer and see exactly what he’s going to be getting”. The media chased the story of student debt, like dogs after a stick, which was fair enough, since it is life-changing for an entire generation and has, I believe, changed the political outlook, the concept of what’s fair, what’s reasonable, and what’s necessary, in ways that will echo through elections for at least the next decade.

But the fees also altered the relationship – or tried to – between teachers and learners, introducing concepts such as value-for-money into a dyad that often can’t be measured or monetised. That new story relies on quite a lot of buy-in: lecturers, in theory, should be thinking of their students’ yield, and students should be always evaluating what they have gained. It reckons on a lot of self-interest, and a void of solidarity. The UCU pension strikes have exposed this as fallacy: students are standing with their lecturers, demanding compensation not because they oppose the strikes, but in order that the financial pain hits the administration.

Source: Politicised students are a nightmare for the government – any ​attempt to neutralise them is doomed | Zoe Williams | Opinion | The Guardian

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