UCD Students are not customers

Image Credit: Unsplash Licence: Dom Fou

With issues around accommodation, poverty, and the handling of the pandemic all getting their fair share of attention in student politics and the media, Nathan Young warns against a popular perspective among the disgruntled.

The early months of 2020 saw a wave of protests and camp-outs against increases in the cost of on-campus accommodation in Irish universities. Students’ Unions and independent campaign groups in UCD, UCC, DCU and NUIG all held some form of protest and garnered media attention. The legal maximum increase of rent by 4% had been announced for vast swathes of on-campus residences, and activists were nonplussed.

These actions, despite being for a cause students are nominally supportive of, did not  draw huge crowds, and did not reverse the rent increases. For the Unions camping outside full time, it’s arguably good for their pride that the pandemic forced them to give up when they did, having already made the impossible promise of not leaving until the rent hikes were reversed. Same with UCDSU’s promise to keep coming back, and in larger numbers. Without a mass mobilisation of students, these protests would have led to nothing and would’ve given the administration something to giggle at. President Deeks has stated on multiple occasions that the protests were too small for him to care about, but that it is nice seeing engagement.

When the pandemic hit, most colleges saw two huge movements, orders of magnitude larger than the camp-outs, organised over social media. There were the No-detriment” campaigns, which sought a drastic overhaul in how students were graded during the pandemic, and the “Fee compensation” campaigns, which argued that, as they were not getting their full campus experience, they shouldn’t have to pay full price. The reason these campaigns were far more popular seems to essentially be that the pandemic affected every last student, and therefore everyone stood to gain from any success. On campus accommodation prices only directly affect those wealthy enough to live there. 

Of the two campaigns in UCD, and in most universities around the world where such campaigns occurred, the no-detriment campaign was more successful. UCD implemented the “The Covid-19 Assessment Guidelines”, which most academics followed, leading to students not being penalised for under performance during the first trimester of lockdown. Almost nowhere did the fees compensation campaign succeed, as overheads for universities such as wages, subscriptions to online academic sources, and so forth still needed to be paid for.

For student activists, the rationale of the fee compensation could do with a little further interrogation, especially as the logic underpinning it is infecting student activism. Put simply, The student is not, or should not be seen as, a customer of the university. For the majority of the last several decades, students have argued their case against administration by saying that education is a public good, and access to it should be a right for members of our society.

Students have argued their case against administration by saying that education is a public good, and access to it should be a right for members of our society.

This stance that students “pay” for a particular experience of education is flawed on every level. Obvious initial objections to tying student causes to what they are paying for implies that those who pay less due to their receiving of scholarship or welfare deserve less of a college experience, and that those paying more due to being from outside the EU deserve more. Beyond that, it reduces a higher education to a product available on a market, which is the very philosophy behind so much of what student activism is supposed to be against. It says that the commercialisation of the University is good, or at least acceptable, so long as a graduate can sell their labour at a higher price and be guaranteed the full monty of college life.

There’s also arguments to be made that, if education is a product, then the student centre levy and repeat fees are also justified. Products with additional features cost more. All the degrees that aren’t directly leading into careers, such as most of the humanities and many sciences that aren’t directly applicable to product design should be scrapped. If you study Astrophysics but end up working in a finance firm, then you would be even more marketable had you studied financial maths from the beginning. Most importantly, if degrees are products on a market, then the same precarious working conditions and exploitation faced by so many in service, retail, and other private industries should be welcomed in the sector.

In a recent protest against the continuation of online classes despite promises of face to face learning in TCD, Laszlo Molnárfi, chair of the group Students4Change (S4C), declared “We pay your wages, we pay your €200,000 salary” in reference to TCD Provost Linda Doyle. Molnárfi has previously written articles in this paper and elsewhere decrying neoliberalism in higher education, and S4C describe themselves as an “Alliance of Marxist and Anarchist students”, so it’s especially surprising to see them use this line of argument. Molnárfi defended the phrase on Twitter, stating “...we are completely opposed to the financialisation of third-level education...The 'we pay your wages' is a good argument for more democracy within our Unis tho”. If student activists were to be successful in abolishing student fees, it seems like it would come at the cost of an allegedly good argument for democratising the academy.

There is also a simple tactical point about seeing the student as a customer being problematic. To take another TCD example, Take Back Trinity, the successful movement to prevent the introduction of repeat fees by protest and occupation of campus buildings, was built from the earliest days on a foundation of support from workers on campus. Organisers and activists had a working relationship even with campus security, meaning that for the first several hours they were not prevented from entering and exiting buildings, and when the security was eventually increased, security workers had the decency to inform the students of what was going to come.

During many of the conversations now underway on campuses such as our own over the issue of the housing crisis, it’s not uncommon to hear people say, for example “I don’t mind paying over €1000 a month for rent on campus, but I should at least get an oven”. Of course, people get involved in movements around issues that affect them, and a good organiser will meet people where they are, but the idea that a student is a customer should be squished as much as possible.

None of this is to say that students should be happy about paying for college, or that TCD has done a good job at communicating the return to campus, or that people paying high rent don’t deserve ovens. Instead, we have to keep an eye on how we conceptualise and communicate our ideas and demands. We shouldn’t pay the wages of anyone on campus. Tax coffers should look after that, and pay many of them more than they currently get, too. We, as students, should explicitly tie our grievances with management to those of workers and academics whose struggles come from the same mismanagement as our own.