Monday, 21 May 2012

Tuition Fees: students have the right to ask for quality and more teaching

In the furore over the trebling of university tuition fees somebody forgot about the customer, to pinch Higher Education (HE) parlance. When proposed, debates honed in, naturally enough, on the extra expense of post 18 education.
But it failed to address the quality question: what are students going to be getting in return for this additional outlay? If they are now expected to fork out up to £9,000 a year for a degree, it follows that quality and time spent with their tutors should also increase. Except, this is doubtful.
Figures out last week shed light on the effects of the first round of fee-tripling (to £3,000) and found the hike didn’t correspond with more teaching, be it in the form of lectures or tutorials.  Students received no more than 14 hours tuition a week: a paltry 12 minutes increase since the rise in 2006. Teaching actually fell. What students lacked in tuition they made up for in private study.
Being over £30,000 in debt before you even set foot in the workplace, if you can find a job that is, is an unenviable proposition. The least students can expect is some sort of return with regards to more tuition and better teaching.
It’s no longer sustainable or even equitable to rely on the tax payer to subsidise university education; students must now pay their way, contribute to the cost of getting a degree, so the arguments went.

Not once did I hear about what efforts would be made to improve the whole ‘student experience,’ to borrow another awful HE/marketing term. This is what makes last week’s findings by the Higher Education Policy Institute so dispiriting.
I recall my own days as a Politics undergraduate, straining to find the time to cope with my 8 hours a week (that’s lectures and tuition combined). I was the first cohort of fee payers (just the derisory £1,000 a year back then), and even now, struggle to comprehend what I was getting for my money.

A handful of lectures a week, delivered on PowerPoint, with attendance rapidly dropping off after the first few weeks. Seminars consisted of a room full of a dozen or so (very hungover) students and the tutor.
Spending three years as a university lecturer teaching Politics and International Relations I got to see things from the other side: never more than an hour or so a week of contact time with the same students, thus puncturing any hopes of building up much of a rapport.

The lack of face to face interaction with their tutors meant students were quickly demotivated and distracted by the plethora of other activities on offer.
I remember speaking to a senior lecturer who had been working there for over 30 years and told me that one of the problems with higher education is that it is divided between those who can, teach, and those who can’t, do research: the idealistic ones, with teaching backgrounds, there to impart knowledge and enthuse their students (me), and those who devote most of their time to research and writing books and journal articles, representing their employer outside the confines of the university, giving it kudos when studies are released and books written (the majority).
There’s no doubt that in 20 or 30 years universities will feel like very different institutions. Lord Mandelson, speaking in 2009, alluded to changes which (it wouldn’t surprise me) may be afoot in the not so distant future. Namely, the two year degree, an ever more likely scenario.
Even before higher fees become commonplace, students have become more vocal and more critical. A study commissioned last year  found many students unimpressed at the quality of teaching received, as a well as a lack of contact time and feedback.

After graduating, up to a third of undergraduates felt ill-prepared for the world of work. More than half thought the standard of teaching better at their schools.
Already steps are being taken by some universities to offset this fee rise. London Metropolitan is to offer its students six more weeks of teaching time, taking its total to 30 weeks a year. Some students are choosing to study overseas, in countries with considerably lower fees, and courses in English, such as Maastricht, in the Netherlands.
Undergraduates are also becoming (rightly) more demanding, with complaints reaching record levels, rising by 33% in a year. Rob Behrens, head of the adjudicator’s office which investigates them, said this reflected a ‘consumerist’ attitude and a heightened awareness of value for money:
"There has been a lot of policy discussion about fees in the past year [2010] and it's concentrated students' minds into thinking about the merits of what they're getting. It's encouraged them to be more like consumers - and consumers are more likely to complain.”
The days of students being passive recipients are over.

This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Monday 21 May 2012

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