We have now entered “Coronavirus Capitalism”. Or so says noted author and activist Naomi Klein. Quoting famous economist Milton Freidman, she states that “only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” But where do these ideas come from? And how do we know that they are not fallen pillars of the old, unequal dystopia we just fell from? Personally, I look for local inspiration.
In November 2019, the University and College Union (UCU) announced 8 days of continuous striking across 60 UK universities – Queen’s University Belfast included. This dispute centred around “changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and universities' failure to make improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads”. In simple English, employees felt that they were being continually mistreated by their employers and, rightly, protested.
In February 2020, UCU announced a second round of strikes across 74 universities, in protest of the same problems as December. However, this time the demonstrations were planned as 14 non-consecutive days, spread across 4 weeks. Longer strikes, more universities and more disruption. The force they were rallying against had, apparently, not heard their concerns. In total, by March 14th, students had missed up to six weeks of their education.
Students from Great Britain attending QUB, alongside me, they will pay a humongous £9000 in tuition fees alone. According to the QUB academic calendar, there are 147 teaching days available in the current year (2019/20). With the aforementioned strikes causing potential disruption to 30 of these days (either through missed class or accelerated delivery of material in post-strike classes), students have potentially lost 20% of their education. In reality, this will cost in excess of £1800.
If fees are paid for through a loan, this £1800 will inevitably accrue interest. This means that the original lost £1800 will only multiply as years pass with the financial debt placed upon each student ever-growing. Each pupil is effectively accepting £2000 in life-hindering debt, for nothing in exchange. Is this fair? Do we want to carry this type of frighteningly imbalanced transaction forward with us?
UCU members have exposed the education system for what it is; monetised. It is no longer the dreamy space for self-betterment every American coming-of-age movie told us it was. It is a place of stress. At least that is what QUB’s own OMNI survey states, with 72% of students struggling with university-imposed deadlines and 70% with burnout. That is well over two-thirds of students not enjoying their university experience. Additionally, Queens Radio’s own ‘The Scoop’ recently exposed the startling information that “the number of students applying to the University Hardship Fund (a non-repayable loan intended to aid those experiencing financial difficulties) has risen by 14.1% since 2014/15”. Is anyone truly enjoying university anymore?
Come March 17th, in response to the rising threat of Covid-19, QUB announced the closure of all campus facilities. The decision was made to move “all teaching and associated material… online as far as possible”. Although patience must be granted in such a global pandemic, we must now look forward and ask will more weeks of education be lost while this fledgling delivery takes shape? If so, will reimbursement come? Not willingly, I bet.
Evidently, this has been an extremely tough time to be a student, from interference with our education to major financial losses. But these problems are symptomatic of our global society; we live in an eco-system obsessed with money. Capitalism has put a price on everything from healthcare to education - and has since increased that price. Money has forced our lecturers to strike, money has forced our universities to under-pay our lecturers and money is now forcing me to write this. Following this system’s own logic, the question must be then asked, have university students gotten what they paid for? In any other line of service, and QUB is most certainly a monetary service, would you pay full price for 4/5 of a product?
We need to heed the example of protesting UCU members and take action to demand change. Capitalist or socialist, higher-level education is not delivering what it has promised – to anyone. According to Freidman and Klein, now is the time to find inspiration and pursue new ideas. If a Conservative Government can create a job-retention scheme, we can free ourselves from establishment-imposed debt.
Rory Hughes is a 24 year-old student at QUB, currently doing his MA in Media & Broadcast Production. He has a keen interest in NI politics, creating several podcasts and think-pieces across a range of platforms