Continuing the debate – What is student power?

This is the seccond contribution to the debate.

Ross Speer‘s article below is a response to Harriet Swain , Liam Burns’  and Michael Chessum’s debate in the Guardian. It doesn’t necessarily reflect all opinions represented in the Education Activist Network but seeks to make a contribution to the work of EAN and the wider student movement. If you would like to submit a contribution please email educationactivist@gmail.com and we will publish them.

Other people who have contributed to the debate so far: Alan Sears, Mark Bergfeld

Harriet Swain and Liam Burns articles on the question of student power fall wide of the mark on what constitutes meaningful assertions of power within the university. Rather than seeking to shape universities structurally, they call only for a seat at the table. Rather than breaking with the logic of market-driven universities and students as consumers the ‘power’ they demand is little more than customer feedback for a product.

For Swain particularly this seat is to come at the expense of teaching staff. Instead of a collaborative approach to knowledge creation students are to place themselves above academics – the customer is always right. Emily Collins, a student engagement co-ordinator at Reading University is quoted approvingly: students “know how they can best be taught…The idea of ‘teacher knows best’ is looking back to a time when teachers did know best.” Ivory-tower academics, apparently divorced from reality, no longer know what needs to be taught; students do. Of course, if you’re paying £27,000 for a three-year course market logic would suggest the product should be tailored to the demands of the customer.

However, as Professor Stefan Collini has pointed out “the paradox of real learning is that you don’t get what you ‘want’ – and you certainly can’t buy it… Hacking your way through the jungle of unintelligibility to a few small clearings of partial intelligibility is a demanding and not always enjoyable process. It isn’t much like wallowing in fluffy towels.” One would wonder why Collins, or Swain,  would bother to pay for a university course when she already claims to know more than trained academics about the subject at hand. Student power, for her, is the process of turning a demanding education in to “fluffy towels.” The education of students is not to be shaped by the demands of the discipline itself, but by the need to provide the product the customer wants. And no sensible customer wants a product that costs £27 000 but still comes with the possibility of failure: the possibility of not receiving the product at all, with no chance of a refund.

Perhaps NUS President Liam Burns is more in tune with what student power actually means. For him  the spread of student power in universities is already evident. We have “team exercises and group assessments,” “most institutions include a student representative on their decision-making committees,” and even “student-led teaching awards” that “raise the profile of great lecturers.” And herein lies the paradox. Each extension of this sort of ‘student power’ comes with a corresponding loss of power for academics. Student power becomes less about asserting ourselves and more about curbing pesky lecturers. At my university (Queen Mary, University of London) our student led teaching award has not been so much used to profile great lecturers as to allow management to single out those not nominated as bad lecturers. Combined with the use of performance management systems that constitute an attempt to quantify output in the fully reductionist sense – effective education from the point of view the modern academic becomes measured simply by quantity of journal articles, grant money, PHD completions – academics are hung out to dry. All in the name of student power, of course. Again, student power has been reduced to the relationship between a customer and a product. Collini provides an illuminating critique of this approach: “it helps if you trust your guides rather than assuming they will skimp on the job unless they’re kept up to the mark by constant monitoring of their performance indicators.”

For all our “student representatives” on “decision-making committees,” despite ‘consultations’, ‘open meetings with the principal’ and all other manner of guff, when it really matters we find our apparent power has disappeared. As management proposes to fire a number of staff in our School of Biological and Chemical Sciences students and lecturers have presented united opposition. At each stage our concerns have been ignored. There will be a very clear impact on teaching, and yet management simply offers reassuring comments on the “decision-making committees” while proceeding to make the actual decisions without taking our criticisms on board. In the face of management determination student power melts and becomes rather more ethereal than Burns would suggest. No doubt being an NUS President involves being surrounded by a lot of yes-men. However, the reality on the ground in universities today is that there are many avenues for customer feedback, but just as in the business world proper the actual power is out of our hands.

So what is student power? If it is not the ability to dominate staff, to assess and performance manage them, as if they are trinket salespeople failing to meet their quotas, then it must be located outside the market relations that have come to dominate the university system. If we are to think seriously about “putting students at the heart of the system” then it is democratic power that must be extended over the university. Neither Swain nor Burns is able to grasp this. If student power is to be realised the demand must be raised for the collaborative control of the institution by a general assembly of students and staff. The false competition between these groups must be abolished and replaced with cooperative dialogue and joint control. A precondition of real expressions of student power within universities is the restoration of free education and full living grants. We not only need the creation of collaborative democratic structures to unite students and workers, but all students must be able to participate; not just those freed from the burden of work and with time to spare. Until students are able to participate fully in the control of their institution talk of student power will be meaningless.

Two further demands must then be raised. It is not only the competitive structure between students and academics that has been built up under the introduction of the market that must be removed, but also competition both between students and between institutions. Only in finding common interests can we begin to find expressions of a common power. Students must call for both the abolition of exams and grading, an end to league tables, and the removal of elitist organisations such as the Russell Group. Only in this can we move beyond the patronising and false avenues of power that Swain and Burns offer us.

Ross Speer, Queen Mary Stop the Cuts activist

About educationactivistnetwork
The education activist network provides national coordination for trade unionists, academics, university workers and student campaigners fighting to defend jobs and education in the UK.

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