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Connor Tomlinson is the policy director for the British Conservation Alliance and a Young Voices associate contributor. His work can be found at The Federalist, Reaction, and Daily Express.

Universities have been incapable of keeping themselves out of headlines this year. Oxford treated us to two controversies: with Magdalen College removing a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II for representing Britain’s “recent colonial history”, and Oriel College academics refusing to teach students till Cecil Rhodes’ statue is torn down. King’s College London apologised for circulating a photo of Prince Phillip following his death, in case the Duke of Edinburgh offended anybody; despite him serving as governor for over fifty years. Abertay University hauled a law student before a misconduct tribunal for saying “Women have vaginas”. These controversies iced the cake of a record of security threats and violent protests at contentious events on campus, and caused the Education Secretary to intervene with anti-deplatforming legislation.

However, ministers have been candidly dismissive of these civil liberties matters as “student union politics”, which puts UK campus culture as being a low priority problem. In a year where students have taken millions in debt for fees for tuition and accommodation, only to be told post-hoc that all learning would remain remote, strong student unions are needed now more than ever to defend the consumer rights which governments and universities have trampled on.

While student union membership is compulsory to participate in campus activities – costing each student £225 over the course of an undergraduate degree – some have contested that student unions fail to represent all students. Almost half of students believe their respective unions don’t reflect their personal interests. While this issue should be worked out at the annual ballot box, only 10 per cent of students take part in the democratic process.

Not all students are conscientious: you’re unlikely to make loyal voters of the cohort who write their assignments an hour before the deadline. But should student unions choose to dedicate more publicity to their efforts fighting for tuition fee fairness than they do to issues like banning clapping, cancelling Rudyard Kipling, and defacing war memorials, this would doubtless reduce voter apathy in some capacity. And it would be right in line with their mission, too. There’s nothing more inclusive than a wholesale alleviation of the undue financial burden for all students, irrespective of identity.

Covid hasn’t been the only issue impacting timetables. Since 2017, universities have seen regular rounds of industrial action by UCU members. The largest in history happened in 2020, with 74 universities taking a fortnight of industrial action just prior to the pandemic. Tenured members’ concerns over unpaid overtime were met with restrictions placed on the number PhD students able to teach alongside their degree; putting the next generation of lecturers at odds with their future colleagues. Further industrial action is expected at Leicester, Goldsmiths, Kent, and Chester this year.

Government and university administration are playing a dangerous game by increasing a burden on a thinning academic staff with increasing student intakes. To paraphrase Jordan Peterson, the ideas in a university will play out in society a half-decade later. If academics feel betrayed by the structures they’re reliant on for income, one shouldn’t be surprised when a power-keg of cultural deconstruction staffs our institutions in coming decades.

In which case, we should be wary of what C. Wright Mills once warned: don’t underpay your academics if you want a stable society. Student unions must walk the tightrope of accommodating lecturer concerns, while ensuring concessions are made for students missing more of crucial term time they’re paying thousands for, to avoid producing students as resentful of their society as the academics presently teaching them.

Most of this bad budgeting is the fault of universities’ irresponsible spending habits. With the taxpayer footing the bill for fees, and successive Tory governments set on driving university attendance up to decrease unemployment statistics, university administrators have seen fit to deficit spend to a dangerous degree.

Standards set by the Office for Students also appear to contradict its claim that nobody would be bailed out; setting higher education up to be another “too big to fail” bubble waiting to burst. In addition to pushing for fee rebates, student unions should be holding universities to account for excessive spending, and the steep raises to the disproportionate salaries of their chancellors.

Universities have doubtless used lockdown as a measure to lower operations costs, while charging the same for tuition and accommodation, to patch up their deficit. Students have been treated like cash-cows. They’ve literally been fenced in, had their fire-doors locked, their Christmases commandeered, and fifteen months of social and professional opportunities stolen. After 350,000 students signed a petition for a parliamentary debate on fee refunds, they were given only a partisan row which produced no results. Both government and universities are unwilling to admit fault. Now it’s up to students and their representatives to fight for fee fairness.

With student unions set to remain a staple part of campus life, they should be more proactive in defending the financial interests of their members. Elected officers and staff should take care not to succumb to the bureaucratisation which has already bloated their administrative counterparts in the university. The worst thing at this tough time for students would be for their last line of defence to become a carousel for CV clout.