Commoditising student life

It had been a beautifully clear morning, the first in days.

From the full-length window we looked down upon a cluster of City skyscrapers, among them the instantly recognisable shapes of 22 Leadenhall Street and 30 St Mary Axe – better known as the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin. I remembered thinking how amazing it was to consider the building we stood in was taller than the Gherkin and yet I had never seen it before, due to it being tucked away out of sight down an alleyway of Spitalfields, surrounded by other equally shapeless, glass skyscrapers.

After admiring the view and taking a moment to peruse the amenities of the room – double bed, kitchenette and large en suite bathroom, among other things – my guide then took me around the communal facilities of the building. On the top floor was a restaurant, open weekends only, and the floor below this a study area. On the ground floor was an auditorium for film nights and events, as well as a gym, accessible twenty-four hours.

The tour took no more than fifteen minutes. During this time there was no mention of cost, but at reception I was handed a print out with all room prices to browse through in my own time. The room I had viewed was one of the Platinum Studio rooms that, for a minimum term of 43 weeks, cost £729 per week. That’s well over thirty thousand pounds for less than a year’s kip. Most extraordinary of all however was the fact this was not a typical apartment complex. This was accommodation for students.

Room for expansion

The building, run by Chapter Living, is one of seven sites run by the company across London, the other six being in the likes of Islington, Lewisham and Portobello. They are one of the many private student accommodation providers to appear across the UK as of late.

Within London alone, the vast majority of this sector is less than five years old, meaning it has emerged from the rise in student fees rather than in spite of it. While the strategy and branding varies from property to property, with some like Chapter and The Nido Collection embracing an image of luxury and entrepreneurial spirit over more conventional ‘big night out’ imagery used by Urbanest and iQ, the general quality of facilities and pricing structures (rather than the prices themselves) are similar. Room pricing is generally determined by two factors: floor space and floor level. Most sites are made of studio apartments and feature a standard set of facilities including double bed, kitchenette with microwave and grill, an en suite bathroom, and communal areas like study rooms, laundrette and gym. While the prices of somewhere like Chapter occupy a niche at the extreme end of the spectrum, private student accommodation in London is still by no means cheap, with average prices typically ranging between 270 and 400 pounds a week.

In all this is the greatest ‘hidden’ cost of higher education: the cost of living. And as the price of being a student could be set to rise exponentially in England, with the possibility of the fee limit being abolished, more is being done to make the student life more attractive and unmissable to prospective students. Bringing luxury into education is one way of doing this, but at great risk of changing the nature of education itself. By letting money continue to rule over education is to also bolster the attitude that education is a financial investment that must give unimaginable financial returns.

Education as service

It is perhaps unsurprising that the introduction of student fees has brought about a shift in attitudes towards higher education, but even with this in mind it is hard not to be amazed by the acceleration. Part of this is due to the market embracing an already well-established view of higher education – as being as much about the experience as it is about study – and combining it with the more profit-friendly notion of ‘education as service’. The very same finely-tuned combination that has produced such blatantly commoditised phrases as ‘buy experiences, not things.’

But the supreme irony is that to sell the experience is to diminish it, to necessarily limit the scope of what it is to a smaller set of experiences – so it can be sold as widely as possible.

We tend to fixate on the student experience because higher education (for most people enjoying it) coincides with their first steps into adulthood, and becomes associated with those formative years. It is also the time we realise that for learning and education to be of any worth, they should be rigorous and difficult (but not needlessly so). Such notions are antithetical to those of service and luxury, where difficulty or unfamiliarity are seen as discomforts to be reduced to an absolute minimum, while failing to see the challenge itself as being linked to the pleasure of the experience. And so selling education turns into selling everything but the thing itself.

The problem will propagate itself. Over time, universities will generate an expectation of the student experience that becomes impossible to fulfil; all the while, students will continue to demand that universities do more to go above and beyond these expectations. The fallout of this can only be more pressure put on the students themselves, to ensure university justifies not only the financial cost, but meets the academic and social expectations as well.

There are no easy solutions, but one thing is clear: we need to stop universities being a compliant part in their own demise. Otherwise, higher education will turn itself into the ultimate luxury: one that is immensely expensive but, ultimately, superfluous.

Imagery under creative commons by kloniwotski

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