As todays undergraduate students are the humanities (and other subjects) teachers of tomorrow the welfare of todays undergraduates should be of an issue for all of us. The fate of the 2020 cohort of students and the scandalous way in which they have been treated is, therefore, a concern for all teachers. After the disaster of this years A level examinations students became the victims of the mismanagement by the government and by universities of the implications of the COVID virus.
Universities insisted that students with places attend although most were unable to provide, because of restrictions, face to face lectures or tuition. The movement of thousands of young people across the country to take up places predictably caused a massive spike in virus cases and university authorities responded by confining students to halls of residence and threatening punishments for any breaches of social contact restrictions. The problem, it seems we are to believe, does not lie with university authorities, who pretended not to anticipate what would happen by carrying on as normal, but with the students themselves. It is not hard to suggest reasons as to why universities acted as they did. Despite the fact that they pay Vice-Chancellors salaries of up to and beyond half a million pounds and keep many of their staff on low wages and temporary contracts, universities are concerned at a potential drop in their profits if students don’t pay for their halls of residence and even ask for their fees back.
The actions of universities in their pursuit of profit highlights the fact that they have become, to all intents and purposes, businesses. English university students pay tuition fees that are higher than almost any other country in the world and many spend much of their time marketing places to very profitable foreign national students and their services to industry to enable them to accumulate more wealth and expand their business further. The knowledge and qualifications of university graduates are part of our national wealth and a vital component in how society invests in and prepares for the services we will need to face our future.
The COVID disaster shows the vulnerability of the profit motive and the privatisation of knowledge and that it is time to reconsider how universities are funded and how hey can help provide a future for all of us.