Students and the HE Bill: A Second Look at the Second Reading

Guest blog by Ruth Lyons

It is often said of young people that we are not engaged politically; we are apathetic and utterly disinterested. Yet after sitting in a bare Chamber as the HE Bill was being debated, it appeared that politicians were equally disinterested in the future of young people. Considering the number of MPs, particularly from opposition benches, who have spent so much time and energy producing sound bites and headlines on the perceived flaws of the bill, it was shocking that they couldn’t even find the time to attend the debate at all.

But even amongst members who did show up, there seemed to be a serious misunderstanding of the current state of higher education and an ignoring of history. For instance, there seemed to be a general feeling that new, private providers would flood the market, awarding degrees of any standard, only to close down and to run off into the sunset with bundles of dosh in their arms and shattered dreams in their wake. This view neglects that fact that private institutions are already here, the Bill just seeks to regulate them and bring them into the mainstream, giving students like me more confidence. After first spending one year at a public institution, attending the New College of the Humanities, which is staffed by dedicated and highly qualified professors, has been a life-changing experience for me. But after working hard for three years to get my degree, I will end up with a certificate from a University that I have never been to. Now, there is nothing wrong with this particular University, but it is not the institution I attend, it is not the institution whose degree I am studying for. I love NCH and when I graduate I want a degree that gives me proof of the three brilliant years I spent there: the new Degree Awarding Powers (DAPs) will make this a reality. During the debate I did not once hear the opposition recognise stories like mine, and how the Bill will make students in similar situations feel safer and happier. Our voices, our desire for mandatory exit plans, our desire for a degree awarded by the institution of their choice, our desire for proper checks and balances, were being drowned out by the sound of dogma.

As a politically active student who has been to a fair few ‘Free Education’ protests, I understand the fears and trepidations; but something little acknowledged by members in the chamber was that in their black and white system there are two tiers of students; publicly funded and private. This view is harmful to students in two ways. Firstly, it creates a hierarchy of which students matter most, which has allowed many international students and students of alternative providers to be left vulnerable and unprotected. The second is most troublesome; this binary ignores the fact that all students are now consumers. In the context of £9,000 tuition fees, arguing against the new Bill whilst having voted for the changes in 2011 seems a huge betrayal for students; allowing fees to rise but not having legislation or regulation in place to ensure that we are getting value for money. It is the worst of both worlds. Turning students into a commodity to be sold to a closed and select few and blocking new legislation that would flip this dynamic and empower students. There was no doubt that both sides of the debate wanted the same thing: the best for students. But some seemed too willing to sacrifice one type of student in order to seemingly protect others.

Politicians expect students and young people to turn out for them on polling day, but on the issues that matter to my generation the most, they did not turn out for us.

Ruth is a second-year student at New College of the Humanities in Bloomsbury, London.

  • On 30th August 2016