Student expectations and the new fees regime

Here’s a non-controversial topic for discussion: student expectations and the new fees regime. The spur for me thinking about this was reading an article in one of the student newspapers at the university I teach at (there are many reasons I like reading the student newspapers: making sure I’m still down with kids; ensuring that something I’ve said in a seminar hasn’t been turned into a “history lecturer in eugenics shame” story; seeing what my students think about things; etc). The article was reporting on a recent survey of students that asked them whether they thought their degrees were value for money.

Before setting out some thoughts on what students said in response to that question (or at least what the newspaper chose to say about what they said), it’s worth stressing two things. The first is that I’d prefer it if higher education was free in the UK. It’s a great shame that students are now being lumbered with debts of the kind that they will be from November onwards. The second is that I don’t many of the arguments about free higher education are very good. Social mobility certainly has little to do with it (and many of those arguing for free higher education love the social mobility argument) because universities do little in that department (look at the demographics relating to university entry) and if you wanted to promote social mobility you’d put all your money into nursery education anyway. In essence, I’m pro-free higher education because I think it’s a symbol of the aspirations of the post war settlement (a bit like universal child benefit) where you don’t reduce every argument to a slanging match in which everyone asks “why should I pay for that?” Hence the reason I find the NUS’s simultaneous objection to fees and embrace of consumer culture in universities pretty frustrating.

However, to paraphrase Erving Goffman,  I don’t mind being treated like a commodity, as long as it’s an expensive one…

There were a few things that stood out in the article about whether students thought their degrees were value for money. The first was the stuff they seemed to be right about and they deserve to be listened to about: library provision seems to me to be a good example here. It’s clearly not good if you’ve not got access to the basic materials you need to complete your degree. What counts as basic materials is something to be debated another time but the point still stands. I can certainly say that’s something I and my department have made big efforts at addressing.

The second, however, is the pretty narrow view many students seemed to have of what they’re paying for. One of the headline quotes was “each lecture costs me £25. I’m essentially paying for a library card.” I’m not keen on that. Here’s why. On the one hand, £25 a lecture doesn’t strike me as bad value for money compared to what you might pay for other things, especially given I don’t mind students audio taping my lectures. It took me the best part of ten years to learn about some of things I lecture on and, in some cases, I’m the person who knows the most in the entire world about it (you can multiple all that out for colleagues of mine who have been in the game for considerably longer). Academics aren’t like secondary school history teachers, I’m afraid. We frame and produce the material we teach and have to put all together. I will now avoid ranting about how long it takes to put together a VLE site.

On the other hand, a library is kind of what you are paying for as a humanities student. Independent learning is what it’s all about and libraries cost serious amounts of money to run. That’s why local councils choose to close them down when there are budget cuts: because they cost a fortune and they aren’t legally obliged to keep them open. People work in the libraries and they have to be paid, then you’ve got to heat them, then you’ve got to actually have books in them (and to relate that back to the previous point, you’ve got to have someone who knows what books to buy) and those books cost a fortune, then you’ve got to have access to the journals that aren’t bought in paper form any more and, if you think academic books are expensive, you want to try getting a subscription to an academic journal.

What’s probably important to keep in perspective here is that even when students are paying £9k a year, universities won’t be better funded. Students will merely be making up the shortfall left by the government (and not just this one — there’s a general but unspoken agreement here that all parties want higher education off the books). There’s no actual reason for students to expect that things should be significantly better than they were when I was an undergraduate. However, there are fairly inexpensive ways in which things can be better and I do those things.

The third point I noticed is that none of the students thought about the money they are paying for their degree as being in any way related to benefits they might accrue further down the line. The cost should be literally what it costs to provide things right now and that’s all they should pay. The most obvious thing to think about here is the “value added” aspect of the extra cash you’ll earn from having a degree when you get a job and then when your career progresses. One of the interesting things about the debate about higher education is the assumption some people have about only paying what it costs, not what it’s worth, which isn’t an attitude people have about other goods. You might say it’s a moot point given projections suggest less than 50% of students will ever pay the money back. Then again, if you’re not paying the money back, you might say you’re getting great value for money.

The final point was what I’m going to call the Howard Hotson point. Hotson wrote a really quite excellent article in the London Review of Books some months ago now in which he asked why we all think the American system of higher education is so great, given that’s the road we’re clearly being taken down. The point he made was that if you look at what’s happened to the American system, people pay big money, often in the region of £20,000 a year, often more than that. What do they get for it and want for it, though? Well, the evidence, judging by American campuses, appears to be swanky sports facilities and palatial accommodation. In other words, the money doesn’t all go into educational facilities; most of it ends up going into football stadiums and ensuite bathrooms. The point here is that goes into a “student experience”. I was reminded of this by the student who was complaining about the expense of university sports facilities, then another complaining about the accommodation application process. This, my friends, is a sign of the future.

Anyway, the point of these thoughts? I think there needs to be a sensible discussion about what students should expect in the new system. Stefan Collini is right when he argues that one major problem with the new consumer model is that it assumes there’s a linear relationship between students and those educating them. There isn’t because in a number of important cases the people doing the educating know more than those they are educating, especially when it comes to the question of what those being educated need to do to get educated. This is most problematic in the humanities when it comes to things like contact hours but that’s a question for another day.

In this respect, universities and academics more generally need to be more open in the discussions they have with students about these subjects and not assume a default position of thinking that because students demand something it must be a reasonable demand, though this is problematic because the new fee regime kind of assumes that that’s the case. There needs to be an honest dialogue about this and I invite any student who wants to have that dialogue with me to open it up.


2 Responses to “Student expectations and the new fees regime”

  1. 1 izaakww May 10, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    I think this is a really interesting take on where English universities are probably heading. I’ve actually also read the article you refer to, and what frustrates me is that we seem to have immediately collapsed from the high ground of the anti-fees movement into a consumerist ethic. It is an understandable position – it is more “our” money so we might as well get what we “want” – but it is the wrong focus in my opinion, and an uneasy line to take. Maybe the student demo for the begining of next academic year will help us take a more political stance.

    On this, there is a SU referendum starting tomorrow : both questions having obvious relevance to the post, although the second one more.

    • 2 chrisrenwick May 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      The collapse into consumerism was clearly a decision intended to make the NUS look like reasonable modern people (and what’s more modern than consumerism?) but it was every bit as good as the Lib Dem’s “we’re against the war until it starts” stance on Iraq. What I think is more interesting is the question of whether students are generally of position (a) I’ve come for an education and want the best resources available for that and will pay what it costs or (b) I’m here for the student “experience” and that’s what interests me. I can tell you now, universities are putting their money on (b), which is why many of them have student experience officers but not education experience officers. Of course, the question that then follows on from that is whether students are indeed best placed to decide what money should be spent on, which is the crux of the whole new system.

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