> It’s a phenomenon regularly cited by UWE, the Students’ Union and NUS, but the “student experience” remains a vague and ambiguous concept. What does it mean, does it really exist or is it all PR?

Its good practice for governments and corporations to wrap pieces of bad news in rhetoric that makes them easier to accept.

This is called public relations (PR), and there are huge companies dedicated to the task of mediating bad news before it reaches the eyes and ears of the public. The government of this country has the advantage of a vast and sophisticated PR team that carries out a form of damage control, making sure news is delivered at an angle that best suits government priorities. These priorities depend on the situation, but most of the time the objective is not to anger the domestic population.

The point then, from a government or corporate perspective, is to keep up the appearance of an honest organisation whilst devising and implementing policies that are unnecessary and detrimental to those who will be most affected. Otherwise those people might get angry and try to combat such policies. Unsurprisingly, UWE has a PR team. They write the vice chancellors updates for him and sign them ‘Steve’. He suddenly becomes ‘Steve’ a nice, warm, single syllable that turns Mr West into a man you’d go for a pint with, not Mr Steve West, Vice Chancellor of UWE.  Such an apparently whimsical use of words might seem inconsequential, but images purposefully placed in our minds eye by a trained PR team have a major impact on the way we see the world.

The latest piece of shiny rhetoric to come from the office of ‘Steve’s’ PR team is this thing called the “student experience”. Suddenly everyone, from the financial planners of UWE, to the mediating PR team and even the SU presidents and representatives are dedicated to delivering the best “student experience”. In his latest update, written for him by his PR team, ‘Steve’ seems wholeheartedly concerned with giving students the best “student experience” saying “We will continue to invest and make improvements in line with our priorities with the primary goal of protecting and enhancing the student experience”.

The kind of experience that is to be protected and enhanced is not identified. Those who adopt the “student experience” seem to neglect the fact that experience is of course relative. How can we all strive to have the best “student experience” when we’re all individuals, with different ideas of what this experience might be? What broad range of ideals encompasses each and every student’s idea of what a good experience is? Well, there isn’t one, at least not outside the basic tenements of human rights. This is to say that food and clean water are as much a part of the “student experience” as we would expect them to be. But please take note of the PR sidestep here. It’s not that we need to have a good “student experience”, just that we have an experience of being an actual real life student. What this entails has yet to be admitted by ‘Steve’s’ PR team. However, it is not hard to find clues when considering his plans for the re-structuring of UWE.

Let us take note of the fact that ‘Steve’, in solidarity with the government and university vice-chancellors all over England (with a single honourable exception) hasn’t even made an attempt to oppose the government’s spending cuts to higher education. Nor have they opposed the lift on the cap on tuition fees. In simple terms, they didn’t oppose the degrading of the quality of education or the quickly raising price we will soon pay. Furthermore, ‘Steve’ cannot claim to have been rendered helpless by some huge surprise, a typical PR response when spinning unpopular actions. In his ‘Future and Focus Update 7’, Richard O’ Doherty, assistant vice-chancellor states  that “Taking action early to pre-empt these cuts has put us in a strong position, as students will increasingly ask whether we are using their financial contribution in the most efficient and effective way”. Indeed we will, but we might also ask why the financial planners of UWE simply went along with the government’s plans even when they had seen them coming. They had plenty of time to plan a defence of higher education and the cap on tuition fees which would have been a more effective strategy considering the “primary goal of protecting and enhancing the student experience”.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfaTLjruLCs[/youtube]Another part of ‘Steve’s’ re-structuring of UWE (in response to the government’s spending cuts that he foresaw and didn’t oppose) is to cut 80 professors and readers posts. This is part of his plan to “establish a more consistent and equitable staffing structure across the university”. This is supposedly to help realise ‘cost savings’, but it instead means that every professor at UWE has effectively been sacked and is having to re-apply for their job at a lower grade and pay level. This kind of stress undoubtedly affects their ability to conduct lectures and seminars as they clearly have a lot to worry about. Last month the UWE branch of the University and Colleges Union voted unanimously to enter into dispute action with the UWE management which could entail strike action as lecturers struggle to keep their jobs.  The rhetorical ploys of ‘Steve’s’ PR team are providing little cover for Mr West’s true priorities and the service he wishes to provide as part of the “student experience”, an experience in which the ‘cost savings’ of the university management are placed above the education of the student. It seems ever so slightly out of order don’t you think?

The “student experience” then, is equated with the “going to the shops experience” or the “eating out experience”. It is an experience subject to change, just like any other. The problem is that the “student experience” is controlled, and it now encompasses lower standards of education, higher tuition fees and mortgage sized debts. ‘Steve’s’ rhetoric may point one way, but Mr West’s actions indicate that this kind of “student experience” is the one he is concerned with “enhancing and protecting”.

All quotes are easily available online at www.uwe.ac.uk.

By Anthony Killick