Unhappy students and difficult questions to answer

Earlier this month it emerged that a graduate from Oxford has decided to sue his university for £1 million, claiming that “appallingly bad” tuition cost him his first-class degree and therefore prevented him from having a successful career. Cue the usual cries of spoilt millennials. But I’m starting to think that in cases like this, students might have a point when it comes to seeking redress on teaching quality and quantity.

Around the UK something interesting is going on in local Students’ Unions- a whole clutch of them are running campaigns around value for money in University fees and finances. That they are having to is shameful- a reflection on the abject failure of HEFCE’s long since abandoned feather light nudge in this direction a couple of years ago- and one of the reasons why it’s so important that the shift from funder to regular embodied in the morph from HEFCE to OfS needs to mean more than a logo change.

UUK at least made a national attempt last month- noting that the recent HEPI/HEA Student Engagement Survey found that 75% of students “did not feel they have enough information on what universities spend their money on”, they released a university spending “interactive explainer” showing “how universities in England spend their money, and how all of this ultimately benefits the paying student”. Putting aside that the medium of choice for this dose of transparency is late 00s nausea inducing presentation fad ‘Prezi’, it manages to snatch opaque defeat from the jaws of transparency victory through a series of unpleasant distortions. “We spend £1.3bn on student accommodation” it trumpets, burying the circa £2bn that students pay for it in an already inflated housing market.

The thing that most of us that work closely with students know about the clamour for financial transparency is that it is a symptom of a wider problem that is the focus of the Siddiqui case– students’ lack of contact hours. The HEPI/HEA survey found that perceptions of ‘good value for money’ are falling everywhere, with strong evidence that students equate contact hours with good value. They’re particularly miffed that their money is used to cross subsidise- both research and other courses- yet the sector responds with ever more ridiculous attempts to confuse services with benefits, as if doing so will help.

The obvious mistake is to assume that when students say they want to know where their money goes, they want institutional level figures. Those sorts of numbers are about as helpful as institutional access stats- in the name of ‘academic freedom’, OFFA’s inability to get at subject level stats just means that pockets of unjustifiable poshness get masked by nursing courses propping up the WP figures. Same with tuition- pockets of unjustifiable, threadbare contact time are covered by expensive labs and dollops of dentistry. What students want to know isn’t where their money goes collectively- they want to know individually.

Whilst students are happy to argue that ‘tuition’ fees are probably paying for ‘tuition’, the ongoing debate about what it is that students are paying for reached new heights of preposterousness last month when the survey reasonably concluded that students develop skills better through independent study rather than lectures or seminars- prompting a series of commentators to chirp in and suggest that students’ ‘obsession’ with contact hours was somehow misplaced.

  • I go to the cinema to relax. I could probably derive more relaxation from reading a book in my house. That doesn’t mean that my local Odeon gets to take my ticket money, berate me for my obsession with films and send me off with a book and a mug of Horlicks instead.
  • I go to the gym to get fit. I would probably be fitter if I ate and drank less and did more walking. That doesn’t mean that my local Virgin Active gets to take my money, berate me for my “obsession” with gym equipment, and send me off with a map and flask of slimfast instead.
  • And even more importantly, whilst some students do want skills from their degree experience, they reserve the right to want other things. Some want knowledge. Some want specialist skills and some generic. Some derive emotional or social benefits from HE.

The point is that whilst of course students want benefits from HE, not only are those benefits different for different people, but what they are paying for is a service. For the star teachers sold to them on open days. For the glittering libraries not to be full in the run up to exams. For computers to work, for assessment to be carried out with care and returned on time, and for labs and equipment that are fit for purpose.

That doesn’t mean that most of them are arrogant or stupid enough to assume that merely paying £9k entitles them to a degree. But it does mean that as they clamber into a lifetime of debt repayments, the least we can do is deliver what is promised, explain where their money has gone honestly and transparently, and support not berate them when they “obsess” over not getting what was sold to them in a brochure.

Of course, teaching quality is just as important as quantity- HEFCE research demonstrates that “information about teaching qualifications has been identified as important to students”, and “is seen as an indicator of individual and institutional commitment to teaching and learning”. Indeed, it may well end up being only the only reliable indicator of teaching quality in the TEF given NUS’ plans to scupper the use of NSS satisfaction data. But it’s not a trade off. Students feel that they’ve been sold and are paying for for actual contact with actual people.

Former Tory HE Minister David Willetts knew this- “a course that is providing it students with less than 10 hours has unhappy students and difficult questions to answer… I hope and expect to see a decline in the number of students with such low contact hours”, he said back in 2013, but Jo Johnson’s disappointingly partisan response to Wes Streeting’s ‘Student Bill of rights’ amendment to the HE Bill in favour of metrics that look at everything but excellent teaching won’t help at all. Let’s just hope that the OfS can yet still be exhorted to use its new powers to tackle the “value for money” problem with gusto when it gets to work.


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