£9k fees – What’s In It For Us?

“The rise in tuition fees, and our reactions to them, has defined a generation. But the time for protest is through. For today’s student it is about demanding value for money – so are universities prepared to listen?”

In 2010, the government re-shuffled the university system to meet their austerity measures and now universities are demanding more from the students themselves – a lot more. Annual tuition fees currently stand at £9,000 and it’s impossible to rationally conceive of them being any higher.

Because of this, the university landscape is changing. In January, Liam Burns, President of the NUS, spoke for potentially thousands of students when he declared: “Whether we like it or not, students going on to campuses this year will feel like they’re paying more and will have increased expectations to match. But there is [still] no evidence that shifting the financial burden to students gives them more power.”

Now, more than any time in recent history, students have an active interest in how their money is being spent. But what is actually being done? The higher education sector has run the gauntlet of media speculation in recent months, but Impact decided to investigate the situation for ourselves.

One thing is certain: the University of Nottingham has a lot to answer for. We can claim to be the most popular university in the country, having received the highest number of applications through UCAS. Nottingham actually saw its applicants increase by 0.3 per cent over the past year — from 49,278 in 2011 up to 49,441 — in spite of a national downturn.

In fact, our own Vice-Chancellor David Greenaway has been mulling a rise in tuition fees for well over a decade. Writing for the Times Higher Education in July 2000, Greenaway stated that “the case for students paying more… for their tuition is overwhelming,” citing international competition and graduates’ life earnings.

Eleven years hence in the midst of the fees crisis and Greenaway clarified his position on higher education funding in a document co-authored with the University of Birmingham’s Vice-Chancellor David Eastwood. In it, he advocates higher student fees, this time as an alternative to the NUS-approved graduate tax, and claims that increased student contributions are the only way to safeguard quality of education and “ensure that funding goes directly to their university at a time when they are studying”.You would expect that with this level of support for higher university fees, Prof. Greenaway and others would have formulated some idea of how to spend the money.

We asked representatives from the university what exactly was being done to justify the rise in fees. Numbers were off-limits, but we were able to get a fairly good idea of how management intended to distribute funds. Some of these changes are already in effect…

Catering facilities, for instance, will continue to be developed across campus following the successful Portland refurbishment. The wifi has been upgraded in Hallward, George Green and Business Libraries, and is set to be available in all teaching and learning areas and University-managed accommodation by the start of the 2012/13 year (no more clunky grey cables). There has also been further development of the ‘Healthy U’ programme, alongside increased capacity for the university’s counselling service, more mental health support staff and easier access to specialist health services.

Contact hours are also set to improve. Stephen McAuliffe, Director of the Careers and Employability Service says, “One of the effects of the rise in fees has been greater investment in teaching. The reason for this is that an overwhelming element of student’s employability will come from their academic program.”

This sounded promising. Contact hours have been a major talking point for students ever since it was revealed that levels of teaching actually declined following the rise in tuition fees in 2006. According to figures released by The Higher Education Policy Institute, an Oxford-based think-tank, undergraduates received 13.9 hours of formal teaching a week in 2011/12, in contrast to 14.2 hours in 2005/06, when fees were just £1,255 per year. Director of HEPI Bahram Bekhradnia believes these figures prove universities are reluctant to change their educational standards to accommodate higher fees.

Perhaps for this reason, some departments were reluctant to speak when we asked about contact hours. Of those who provided information, around half confirmed that contact time for first year students has, or is set to, increase. This included Psychology, Politics and Economics (BA) departments. The other half, however, has seen no increase in teaching hours despite the rise in fees. First year courses in Geography, Law and Natural Sciences fall under this category.

The university, though, insists that progress is being made. Beginning in 2012/13, there is now a minimum level of scheduled teaching and learning that operates across all degree courses. For your basic Honours Degrees this is around 12 hours per week in your first year and slightly less for the final years of your degree.

However, if you look at these changes in pure value-for-money terms, the majority of students aren’t set to gain much. Firstly, there is the rather obvious fact that this measure will only really affect Arts and Humanities subjects where contact hours are already noticeably lower – Art History, for example. Secondly, by the same token those departments that offer the minimum 12 hours have no obligation to improve or enhance their teaching program, making the policy close to redundant.

Another common gripe for students is the lack of in-depth feedback for their work. The University’s Media Relations team intoned that additional arrangements for prompt feedback are being phased in over the coming academic year. A welcome development – should it come to pass – but we couldn’t shake the feeling that these promises of cross-board development were a little vague.

Aside from education, employability is a further area into which universities are looking. Over the summer, Impact conducted a survey asking students what their feelings were about the quality of service they had received. The results showed that many did not believe the university was doing enough to prepare them for the job market. Only 16%, for example, say the university has been helpful when it comes to contacting employers for work experience. A further 43% believe that if you aren’t already on a path towards your career before coming to university, you’ve left it too late.

We wanted to find out what was being done to prepare students for the job market. One of the main roadblocks to employment is a lack of work experience, so we asked the Careers Service if the university was willing to use its ties with industry to negotiate placements for students. Stephen McAuliffe responded, “There are over 3,000 companies that work with the university to advertise vacancies and opportunities to students, across a variety of sectors”. As it stands now, there are thousands of positions available on the university system and attempts are being made with employers to make sure students are apprised of any developments.

A number of additions and improvements have been made to the Careers Service over the past couple of years, most notably the creation of the Nottingham Advantage Award, an extra credit scheme dedicated to “making students more employable and helping them get the most out of their time [at university.]” McAuliffe weighs in, “Changes are being made. The management board for the university have just increased the budget for the Careers Service. Next year we’re going to be developing separate teams that work within the academic schools. They’re not just in Portland; they are out there engaging with students and helping them develop the skills that are going to give them the best chance in a graduate job interview.”

For the more independently minded, grants of up to £500 are also available to support students finding their own work experience. The Vice-Chancellor has also recently cut a deal with BP to bring in close to a million pounds in sponsorship money for British and overseas students.

Employability has been one of the defining characteristics of the Higher Education sector since the fees crisis and its influence can be observed at all levels. The School of English in particular has sought to explore avenues of employability within their teaching program. Their website states the importance of “embedding employability […] in apparently ‘non-vocational’ subjects” now debt has made postgraduate-taught study a non-option for many students. Using ties with “local creative industry partners” the school, intelligently, emphasises the potential for synergy with ordinary subject-based study.

If this focus on graduate employability continues, one day we might even see leading academic universities like Nottingham sub-contracting work placements into all degree courses. The case for this is strong. Incorporating work experience into the educational structure would send out a clear message that the University is concerned, primarily, with the long term futures of its graduates.

Similar sentiments continue to echo throughout the sector. Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, said last January, “For us, it’s about making sure the student… can see that coming to us leads to good jobs.” But with the graduate labour market still struggling, this is far easier said than achieved.

Here we stumble across an inexorable problem: no amount of protest, no level of ‘employability investment’ or money spent on education can hide the fact that the economy sucks right now. Students are paying more but, because of spending cuts, universities actually have less money than previous generations. On balance, we cannot expect to see real, substantive change until higher fees have taken hold and that could be another three years.

Meanwhile, developments show that while the university is prepared to make steps towards a better, more comprehensive education, more still needs to be done. Crucially, we must not forget the fact that while universities may sound off about value for students today, two-and-a-half years ago they were hymning higher fees. Today’s students are owed more than nominal gestures. They need results – and these can only come from the right sort of spending, in the right areas. So far, with expansion in the careers aspect, the university has got it half right. It’s our job to make sure they take care of the rest.

Izzy Scrimshire

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