Tuition Fees and ‘The Age of Entitlement’

I was in one of the last undergraduate cohorts to go to university before the coalition government brought in the higher tuition fees. Whilst I had never given paying tuition fees much thought before, when this was announced I felt a number of things – mostly relief it wouldn’t affect me directly, a lot of outrage at the Liberal Democrats (whom I voted for during a bout of that Cleggmania many people suffered in the 2010 general election) and also mild outrage. I happened to be living with some fairly conservative folk at the time, and one of them explained that he felt this was a good thing, particularly for us. His reasoning was that we were paying significantly less so our debts were more manageable, and the higher fees would put people off university and therefore increase the value of having a degree once more, meaning we would benefit from increased employability but minimal debt. Although selfish, his logic didn’t seem incorrect to me and I didn’t give the issue of tuition fees much more thought. It was only recently that I realised quite how much was wrong with what this particular individual said to me.

The main thing wrong here is that the value of a degree shouldn’t be tied to how much it costs because that is how we end up with such inequality in education. I have pretty strong feelings about believing education really ought to be accessible to all people, regardless of their socioeconomic situation. This basically comes down to my view that money should not be able to buy you privilege in such fundamentally necessary service areas as schooling, healthcare and so on.

However, I started thinking how this ties in with libraries and realised that I feel quite strongly about scrapping tuition fees for higher education. I have written before about how I do not like the idea of calling library users ‘customers’ due to the relationship this creates and the kind of ideology it perpetuates, and I think making people pay for their university tuition is just as guilty of doing this too. Monetising things creates a different relationship wherein students often see education and the resources as a service that they are entitled to complain about. In my anecdotal experience, many student grievances begin with ‘but I have a right to….’

A right to what, exactly? In short, I wonder if because capitalism purports that money makes the world go around, capitalism therefore creates a culture of entitlement, and there’s nothing that inflames older generations more than this current ‘age of entitlement‘ we’re living in. This idea that has been floating around the media for a good few years now is that those who are identified as ‘millenials’ (me included, HI!), are lazy and arrogant and expect to get everything without working for it. Basically, we’re super-entitled.

Well thanks for that, but I have a response:

If this is true, it’s because previous generations made us this way. The very people who brought in tuition fees were those who never had to pay them. Whilst we’re saddling ourselves with a potential lifetime of debt, and you’re telling us we need to work harder, of course we feel entitled to get something worthwhile out if it. Consider this – if you were in a restaurant and you ordered, say, a rare steak and it came not only well done, but charred. If you made a complaint based on the fact that you’re paying a fair amount of money for your meal and it isn’t what you expected, and your waiter called you entitled, you’d be pretty horrified at their attitude. Well, a whole bunch of students who went to university just after me got served a charred steak they paid at least £27k for – of course they’re not happy.

There are, of course, always exceptions to every rule and I am sure there are rather a lot of people in my generation who expect to do well without really trying, but please, don’t tar all of us with the same brush. I worked really hard to get to where I am today, and I know a lot of people who worked even harder than I did and definitely deserve to be doing better than they are, as well as people who didn’t work that hard at all and know they are at fault for this. To this end, I believe that we don’t need to be trying to alter the mindsets of our users, we need to alter the institutions – if we scrap tuition fees, people will not intrinsically tie their expectations to a cash value – especially when that value increases as fees rise in line with inflation. Instead, I would like to think that people will no longer look at their university libraries (and wider HE experience) in terms of value for money, but will be free of this concern and able to truly view the library as the useful resource that it is. Moreover, I believe it will help facilitate a more collaborative environment because users won’t feel like everything should be perfect and easy because they’ve paid for it, they’ll hopefully recognise that they can only get as much out of the library and their librarians as they are willing to work for – and this is true of the whole university experience, I feel.

tl;dr: Neoliberal values which aim to monetise institutions and capitalise on knowledge harm the institution as much as they harm the individual.

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