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Graduates: Are we consumers, not students?
By Lucy Pegg
As I leave university, I’ve never felt more like a consumer and less like a student.
As an English Literature graduate at Sussex, I finished up my undergraduate studies filled with a bittersweet happiness at the prospect of leaving behind a course, university and community I have loved so much. Now, having actually graduated, I can’t help but feel I’ve been financially rinsed by the university I had been so fond of.
Last week I attended my graduation, an occasion four years in the making. It saw friends, family and university staff gather ostensibly to celebrate our academic success and – despite sweltering in my gown in the heatwave and having constant paranoia about my mortarboard falling off – was a sweet and oddly overwhelming day. But, for universities, the event is surely a cash cow too. I paid out £45 for a (compulsory) cap and gown, whilst another £50 went on tickets for my parents. That’s not to mention the photography packages available – unnecessary when your mother insists on as many photos as mine does – which range from £30 to £295, and the accumulation of transport and accommodation costs that are also inescapable if travelling any distance to a ceremony. I heard a rumour that even water wasn’t available for free, though champagne and orange juice were freely flowing. The fact that at the drinks reception which followed I was bombarded with marketing handouts from the university’s career department and alumni office, as well as opportunities to buy Sussex teddy bears or recordings of the ceremony, didn’t help with the feeling that everything here was about money. Of course, you don’t have to go to your graduation ceremony, but after the amount of work that goes into a degree not many of us find that an appealing choice. Universities abuse our desire to celebrate our hard work with a stream of financial demands attached to that well-deserved fun. Some people do organise alternative graduations in protest, but I imagine most of us simply suck up the costs.
The marketing of postgraduate study is unrelenting too. Nevermind PPI or life insurance, its an MA that I’ve been aggressively targeted with recently. Every official email congratulating me on my undergraduate results quickly becomes a ploy to persuade me to continue my studies at my alma mater; like many other universities Sussex offers huge discounts to their alumni who continue their study with them, luring first class and 2:1 graduates in with significant discounts of £5,000 and £3,500. From individual academic staff encouraging us to pursue our academic interests the push towards postgraduate study is supportive and facilitative; from a mass email it feels more like an attempt to secure a year’s more tuition fees from me. Ironically, I was planning to stay at Sussex for my Masters, until the course was - without any prior warning – cancelled only two months before its start date, leaving me in the lurch in regard to housing, other MA programmes, and how I was going to carry on financing my existence. Once again I felt used by my university, rather than part of its community.
The little costs of graduating begin to irk too when they follow on the heels of larger financial demands. I was billed £70 for a single library book that hadn’t been returned on time and immediately sent many angry emails and letters as though I’d committed a much worse crime (luckily I did take it back and wasn’t charged). Friends found there was printer credit on their accounts that they couldn’t get back or that their student cards, and the discounts connected to them, ran out long before we graduated. Throughout my time at Sussex I’ve felt a conflict between the warm hubbub of students and staff I’m surrounded by, and the paper thin layer of care universities administer to their students. University is now a business and, as I’m sure is reflected around the country, the price tag attached to us is perhaps more important to many than the degrees we’ve just graduated with.