The case against strike refunds

Cait Findlay 26 February 2018
Image Credit: Dave Pickersgill

In the face of strikes across the country protesting the cuts to the USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme) which provides university staff with pensions, some students are lobbying their universities to refund them for the teaching time lost by the strike. They believe that they are owed compensation for the disruption to their education. Some students have created ‘Refund our Fees’ campaigns to appeal to their universities to compensate them for lost lectures.

Ignoring the political issues for a moment, let’s consider the practicalities of such a refund. How can these students say how much they should be refunded? Refunding tuition fees is not the same as getting money back for a t-shirt sandwich. They are an abstract sum of money which we have not even paid yet but will begin to repay, with interest, once we have graduated. Lectures and other types of teaching are free to students at the point of delivery, so the strike’s only current impact is on our work, not our wallets.

Furthermore, the £9,000 or £9,250 sum represents what the government sees as the price of a university education rather than any real value relating to contact hours, term lengths, or access to resources. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the disparity between teaching time for science and humanities degrees; everyone has heard the joke that tuition fees for a humanities degree are nothing more than an expensive library card. On a pragmatic level, students cannot claim money back because tuition fees themselves make very little logical sense in terms of what they pay for and when.

This is the main issue: to demand compensation is to put a price on education, which is exactly what the government wants us to do. We are not consumers; we are students. Requesting a refund asserts the view that education is a product which we are consuming, rather than a privilege. It puts teaching on the level of all the other things for which we shell out money. Education becomes a commercialised good rather than a priceless process which the government has labelled with an arbitrary price tag. Wanting compensation for a few cancelled lectures and disrupted teaching plays into the government’s hands by showing that students are beginning to see education as commercial, beginning to put numbers to hours. How can we counter rising tuition fees and increasing debt if we support the idea that education can be bought? We have to show that our education means more to us than money, by resisting further attempts to monetise and marketise higher education.

The attitude of those demanding compensation does not demonstrate solidarity with strikers. It puts their individual grievances over the security of future generations of academics. If you’ve missed a lecture for a hangover and not demanded compensation, you can miss a lecture in solidarity with UCU. The strike is not financially viable for many of those who are striking, who are also painfully aware of the impact that their actions will have upon their students. It is not a malicious withholding of a service to which we are entitled. Industrial action is the final line of defence against changes to pension schemes which are threatening not only their pensions, but the position of university education itself.

You can, and you should, be angry with the disruption to your studies caused by the strike at a particularly precipitous moment in the academic year. Expressing that anger should not entail your private monetary concerns for the tuition fees you are not yet being charged for, but it should be directed towards university managements who are risking their staff’s pensions and job security. Don’t ask for a refund; demand secured rights for the academic staff who are committed to our futures. Resist the commercialisation of education by refusing to play into the government’s money-grabbing hands.