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Editorial

The Student on how the university gets it wrong

Admittedly, shitting on the university’s administration and the way in which it handles most of the challenges thrown its way is a popular student media pastime. This is in part because, as my no bullshit Chemeng flatmate would put it, the university just gets a lot of stuff wrong.

Yet the fact that it receives such negative press is also partly because the university’s response is often concerned with minimising fallout, rather than dealing with the deeper complexities of an issue. To make a crude generalisation, the university operates according to an instinct to iron out the wrinkles in its PR image than to effect systemic change. It has, for instance,  proved far more willing to change the name of a building than to address the racial and wealth imbalance among its students. 

Equally, the university’s handling of Covid-19 has followed a pattern of seeing how much it can get away with before it faces pushback from its student body, and before its structures must again do damage control. Given the widespread criticism of the quality of online or “hybrid” teaching, articulated in an open letter to the university which was signed by more than 1,300 students, ‘exam-style’ eating arrangements at Pollock, as well as the fines of £50 and above issued there, is it any wonder student patience has worn thin? Most of us were willing to comply with the measures necessary to keep our community safe, but not at the cost of our education, our mental wellbeing and our wallets.

In his welcome email, Principal Mathieson promised that “an Edinburgh degree will be as valuable [now] as it has been for over four centuries,” but whether it will also be as enjoyable and worthy of our time is an equally pressing question. 

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Is it therefore surprising that the coverage of such measures (or, as we might put, it shitting on the upper echelons of the administration) often feels the need to point out the disparity between rhetoric and reality? The aim is rarely, as some may think, to create bad press for the sake of clickbaiting readers or sticking it to the establishment. It stems from an inadequate response, from the need to hold the institution that dominates our lives to account.

And while the university gets a multitude of things wrong, criticism of its actions usually concentrates on a failure to match the tuition fees charged with the quality of student experience. This is to a large extent the result of a system where most students are in fact customers, with the university continually under pressure to deliver “your money’s worth”, as opposed to delivering worthwhile education. In such a system, the university is keen to preserve its good image to ensure it doesn’t lose students to its competitors, while students operate according to an instinct to ensure that they receive something to show for the £1,820, £9,250-£32,000 they/their parents/their government are expected to cough up each year. 

Given the set up, the quality of education received for such tuition fees is therefore a legitimate concern and hardly a broken record type of argument. This may all sound incredibly Marxist and dull, but there is a point behind such an analysis. Students keep making the financial argument precisely because as high paying customers we reserve the right to demand high quality, not to mention the fact that due to such high fees, debt and financial difficulties are the most immediate and pressing concerns for most.

Back in March, Principal Mathieson called the demands for tuition fee compensation in light of Covid-19 measures  a “well-rehearsed position”. Surely then, eight months down the line and quality still not reflecting price, it is time to re-rehearse this position? So long as what is promised by the university fails to match what it implements, The Student will continue applying pressure for the university to do so. 

Image: kaysgeog via flickr