Bradley Allsop, Contributor
I should have known that a visit from Boris Johnson would involve a typically slapstick entrance on one of my previous university’s cycle-hire bikes, it was too good a PR gimmick to pass up for the performer-politician. I also should have known that his answers to informed questions would have been far less crowd-pleasing. When Mr Johnson was asked during a meet and greet at The University of Northampton why the Conservatives had felt it necessary to triple our tuition fees, he paused awkwardly, spluttered out something about needing to pay the bills, and then launched into another joke about codpieces (my previous university is home to a prestigious leather centre, something he’d obviously been told to bring up- constantly).
Boris may have saved himself from a potentially angry mob with his charming school-boy routine, but the mask had slipped for a second, and what lay beneath was telling: he didn’t have a reason. Vague comments about the deficit are what are often offered in rhetorical exchanges by Conservative politicians, but never is the issue of why students are footing the bill ever significantly addressed. It is not just tripled tuition fees: attempts to sell of the student loan book, cuts to university funding, the new plans to scrap maintenance grants, and looking beyond universities specifically; cuts to FE, cuts to disabled students’ allowances, cutting EMA… it’s actually quite hard to find something relating to education that hasn’t been cut.
The problem with the effects austerity has had on higher education is that they are not easily quantifiable, so for some this makes them non-existent, although they are or will be all too real for those in the sector. Economist Ha-Joon Chang suggests that those pointing out that there has been no drop in applications to HE institutes since the fee rises are missing the point: the effects of the huge debt new students are acquiring won’t be felt for another decade when these people are trying to get on the property ladder, then there’ll be real trouble.
Its current effects are much more psychological: a consumer culture in HE that warps universities into businesses with bloated marketing departments and a proliferation of ‘lad culture’ that entices students and then plies them with trinkets to keep the ‘customer’ happy, with the focus on education and critical thinking wavering. The consumer culture and government cuts pours pressure onto hapless academics, with the senior managements profiting from the new culture avoiding the fury of students in their private offices removed from the humdrum of normal university life.
Students are too busy making sure they can pay back their debts to stop and critique the system they live under. This comes at the very worst time, as a focus on the individual being to blame for their condition (for being poor in particular) is being propagated by the government, an insidious ideology that needs brave and questioning citizens to argue against. ‘Employability’ is the battle-cry of the university as it charges into the latest Times Higher University Listing, campuses now reduced to corporate training camps, forcing students to jump through hoops for jobs that aren’t there.
The real impact of Cameron’s austerity at the moment is not a personal debt crisis or a curtailing of social mobility: that’ll come later. The immediate effect is a sector rapidly losing its purpose, instead supplanted by a profit-driven business model, and a generation losing its ability and willingness to critique and question.