The poverty of student experience

By Jana Bacevic

One of my favourite texts back from the time when I was writing my Master’s thesis is the Situationist International’s On The Poverty of Student Life (De la misère au milieu étudiant). Written in 1966 and distributed in 10.000 copies at the official ceremony marking the start of the new academic year at the University of Strasbourg, it provoked an outcry and a swift reaction by the university authorities, who closed down UNEF, the student union that printed it. Today, it is recognized as one of the texts that both diagnosed and helped polarize conditions that eventually led to the famous 1968 student rebellions  in France. This is how it begins:

“We might very well say, and no one would disagree with us, that the student is the most universally despised creature in France, apart from the priest and the policeman. The licensed and impotent opponents of capitalism repress the obvious–that what is wrong with the students is also what is wrong with them. They convert their unconscious contempt into a blind enthusiasm. The radical intelligentsia prostrates itself before the so-called ‘rise of the student’ and the declining bureaucracies of the Left bid noisily for his moral and material support.

There are reasons for this sudden enthusiasm, but they are all provided by the present form of capitalism, in its overdeveloped state. We shall use this pamphlet for denunciation. We shall expose these reasons one by one, on the principle that the end of alienation is only reached by the straight and narrow path of alienation itself.

Up to now, studies of student life have ignored the essential issue. The surveys and analyses have all been psychological or sociological or economic: in other words, academic exercises, content with the false categories of one specialization or another. None of them can achieve what is most needed–a view of modern society as a whole.”

This diagnosis is pretty much relevant today: most discussions of tuition fees avoid tackling the bigger question, which is the purpose of education and its role in society, beyond the invocation of the standard slogans related to either economic development or social justice and fairness. However, neither clarity of its analysis nor its resonance with contemporary issues are the main reason why I believe the Situationist pamphlet is worth reading. Instead, I would like to draw attention to draw attention to one of its underlying assumptions, reflected in the broader cultural imaginary of the ‘misery’ of student existence, life and social position, and then contrast it with current trends in the provision of student ‘experience’. Last, I want to bring this conversation to the question of tuition fees, which recently re-gained prominence in England, but has been at the back of higher education policy discussions – both in the UK and globally – for at least the last 30 years, and then use it to reflect on the changing role of higher education more generally.

The misery of student life?

There existed a time when being a student was really an exercise in misery. Stories of dank rooms, odd jobs, scraping by on half a baguette and half a pack of cigarettes used to be the staple of ‘the student experience’. Nor were such stories limited to France; I often hear colleagues in the UK complain about not being able to stand cider as they drank way too much of the cheap stuff as undergrads. All of this, as the adage went, was in preparation for a better life to come: stories of nights spent drinking cheap cider only make sense if they are told from a position in which one can afford if not exactly Dom Perignon, then at least decent craft beer.

In fact, these stories are most often told in senior common rooms, at alumni gala dinners, or cheerful reunions of former uni classmates, appropriately decked out in suits. In them, poverty is framed as a rite of passage, serving to justify one’s privileged social and professional position: instituting a myth of meritocracy (look how much I suffered in order to get to where I am now!) as well as the myth of disinterestedness in the material, creature-comforts side of life (I cared about perfecting my intellect so much I was prepared to lead a life of [relative] material deprivation!).

These stories do more than establish the privilege and shared social identity of those who tell them, however. They also support the figure of ‘the student’ as healthy, able-bodied, and – most of all – with little to focus on besides learning. After all, in order to endure between three and eight years on packets of noodle soup, cheap booze, and no sleep, you need to be young, relatively fit, and without caring duties: staying up all night drinking Strongbow and discussing Schopenhauer is kind-of-less-likely if you’ve got to take kids to school or go to work in the morning. This automatically excludes most mature and part-time students; not even to mention that negotiating campus sociality is still more difficult if (for cultural, religious, health or other reasons) you do not drink or do drugs. But, most importantly, it reinforces the idea that scarcity is a choice; the ‘student experience’, in this myth, is a form of poverty tourism or bootcamp from which you emerge strengthened and ready to assume your (obviously advantageous) position in life. This, clearly, excludes everyone without a guaranteed position in the social and economic elite. Poverty is not a rite de passage for those who stay poor throughout their life, and there is no glory in recalling the days of drinking cheap cider if, ten years down the line, you doubt you’ll be able to afford much better. Increasingly, however, that is all of us.

Situationists recognized the connection between the ‘poverty of student life’ and generalised poverty back in 1966:

“At least in consciousness, the student can exist apart from the official truths of ‘economic life’ .But for very simple reasons: looked at economically, student life is a hard one. In our ‘society of abundance’, he is still a pauper. 80% of students come from income groups well above the working class, yet 90% have less money than the meanest laborer. Student poverty is an anachronism, a throw-back from an earlier age of capitalism; it does not share in the new poverties of the spectacular societies; it has yet to attain the new poverty of the new proletariat.”

This brings us to the misery of student experience here and now. For the romanticisation of the poverty of student life makes sense only if that poverty is chosen, and temporary. Just like the graduate premium, it is predicated on the idea that you are ‘suffering’ now, in order to benefit later. And, of course, in the era of precarity, unemployment, and what David Graeber famously dubbed ‘bullshit jobs’, it no longer holds.

The gilded cage of student experience

Of course, university degree, in principle, still means your chances on the job market are better than those of someone who hasn’t got a degree. But this data skews the bigger picture, which is that the proportion of bullshit jobs is increasing: it’s not that a university degree guarantees fantastic employment opportunities, it’s that not having one means falling out of the competition for anything but the bottom of the job ladder. Most importantly, talk of graduate premium often omits to take into account the degree to which higher education is still a proxy for something else entirely: class. The effect of a university degree on employment and quality of life is thus a compound of education, social background, cultural capital, and race, gender, age etc., rather than an automatic effect of enduring three to eight years of exam taking, excessive drinking, and excruciating anxiety.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most visible reflections of the changing socio-economic structure of student existence is the growth of high-end or luxury student housing, and the associated focus on ‘student experience’. Of course, in most cases universities and property developers do this in order to cater to foreign, ‘overseas’ fee-paying students, who are often quite openly framed as the institution’s main source of income (it is particularly interesting to observe otherwise staunch critics of ‘marketization’ and defenders of the ‘public’ status of the university unashamedly treat such students or their parents as cash cows, or at the very least, consumers). But, to a not much lesser degree, it is also a reflection of (if still implicit) recognition that studying no longer guarantees a good and well-paid job. In other words, if you’re not necessarily going to have a better life after university, you may as well live in decent conditions while you’re in it.

The replacement of dank bedsits and instant noodles with ensuite rooms and gluten-free granola, then, is not ‘selling out’ the ideals of education in order to pander to the ‘Snowflake’ generation, as some conservative authors have argued. It is a reflection of a broader socio-economic shift related to the quality of life and life chances, as well as the breaking of the assumption of a direct (if not necessarily causal) link between education, employment, and status. In this sense, Labour’s plan to abolish tuition fees is a good start, but it does not solve the greater question of poverty and precarity, both of which will increasingly impact even those who have previously been relatively shielded from the effects of the crumbling economy – graduates.

Beyond fees

Even with no tuition, graduates will either need loans to cover living costs, or – unless they rely on their parents (and here we are stuck in the vicious cycle of class reproduction) – engage in bullshit work (at least until there is an actual effort to integrate part-time study with decent jobs, something that the Open University used to do well). In the same vein, Graduate Tax only makes sense if the highly educated on the whole actually earn much more than the rest of the population (see an interesting discussion here) – which, if current trends continue, is hardly going to be the case. In the meantime, the graduate premium reflects less the actual ‘earning power’ a degree brings and more the further slide into poverty for those without degrees, coupled with the increasing wealth of those in top-tier jobs, hardly representative of graduates as a whole (in fact, they usually come from a small number of institutions, and, again, from relatively privileged social backgrounds).

Addressing tuition fees in isolation, then, does little to counter the compound effects of deindustrialization, financialization, and growing public debt. This is not to say that it isn’t a solution – it’s certainly preferable to accruing a lifetime of debt – but it speaks to the need to integrate education policy into broader questions of economic and social justice, rather than treat it as temporary solution for rapid social, technological and demographic change. Meanwhile, we could do something really radical, like, I dunno, tax the rich? Just a thought.


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