Student discontent

It hasn’t been a good few years for students getting thier ‘money’s worth’ at university. We are now eight years on from fees tripling to £9k and many are wondering where that money is actually going. This has been exacerbated by the fact that there have been mulitiple interruptions in most universities over the past few years, starting with the UCU strikes of 2018 and 2020 and culminating in the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in today. The underlying unrest is shown by the fact that complaints to the universities watch dog reached record highs in 2019 with 2,371 individual cases leading to over £740,000 of refunds being distributed, presumably this number will seem trival compared to 2020…

Covid-19 has affected everyone in society and I think the government’s relief package to workers has been admirable. Latest figures show that around 6.3 million are having a chunk of their wages paid by the Treasury, the scale of this is staggering but neccessary for many to put food on the table!

Meanwhile, students have been and will continue to pay their full 9k a year fees, on top of the other living expenses which come with adult life. Many students have lost their service sector jobs so are not even able to live in their accommodations or pay for bills.

What is happening?

In light of this, the recent announcement that fees will be continued to be paid in full has been met with anger from many. Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said ‘we don’t believe students would be entitled to reimbursement for tuition fees if the quality is there’. Is this a legitimate approach or just an excuse to keep universities running as they are with the usual culprits picking up the slack – the students – who are supposed to be central to this experience?

Lets be honest, no one can deny that what students are getting is an open university course – and there is fundamentally nothing wrong with this! We are living in a tech age where a lot of learning is done remotely and most resources are available online, a quality degree can still be completed. The issue is that open university courses do not cost 9k a year, they cost £6k – so why should students continue to pay full price? Well, you could argue that they are being asked to pay full price because they have to, and universities know this. Either students continue to pay their fees in full and complete their degree, or they dropout and waste all of the money already spent with no tangible benefit. If you take out fairness and empathy then the equation is simple.

Lost its way?

Has then, the university system fundamentally lost its way? Has money clouded the judgement of the core purpose of university, to educate a new generation of future leaders? Are universities genuinely concerned that they will be taking on fewer talented international students, or are they just worried about losing the astronomical sums of money (£7bn last year) that comes with them? I understand that universities are vital for research and development, they are the focal point for essential advances in the race for a covid vaccine and are important in raising UK productivity post crisis. But should the essential funding for this be coming from students who are, in return, given online lectures, online library resources and a patronising claim that the quality is there?

I’m not surprised that universities are worried about reduced student numbers, who would want to pay all that money if they cannot be sure that their university campus will even be open! Surely it would make sense to at least promise reduced fees IF libraries are shut and IF lecturers can only provide online support (making it an open university course).

Student welfare

This crisis has put a lot of things into perspective, do unis need to take a step back and appreciate that without students they simply wouldn’t exist, maybe then they could start taking better care of them? From the research I have done over the past 12 months I have no doubt that, in most unis, student welfare services are underfunded and understaffed. A good recent study showed that 1 in 3 students have experienced a serious psychological issue for which they needed professional help and students experience lower wellbeing than is the case among young adults as a whole. Compounding this problem is the fact that some students have had to wait for up to 8 weeks to access university counselling services, a statistic which simply isn’t acceptable given that 95 students committed suicide in 2017 (latest figures).

Perhaps a fundamental lack of competition has made universities sloppy? In my opinion, apprenticeships are still significantly undervalued in the UK as a further education path. This is despite the creation of the apprenticeship levy and the growth of exciting new apprenticeship companies such as WhiteHat (another blog topic I think). Will it take a global pandemic for young people to change their preferences and demand a better service? We will have to wait and see.

Will Jones

Director, Thrive & Survive

Will Jones - Thrive and Survive Director