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Stop focusing on tuition fees, start focusing on the real university issues

On the one hand, Theresa May should be congratulated. Admitting that tripling the tuition fee cap to £9,000 in 2012 was a mistake is admirable. Expecting an increase in fees to create competition, rather than all universities just charging as much as possible without any change in where best to go was naïve in the extreme. On the other hand, admitting a mistake is a mistake is pointless unless a change is made. Except now, the required change isn’t with tuition fees.

I am and always have been of the opinion, shared by May, that students “who benefit directly from higher education should contribute directly towards the cost of it”. Tertiary education should be something paid for by those who want to do it. The taxpayer paying for me to sit in a class and learn about some dusty, Nottinghamshire politician long since dead would be ludicrous. Labour’s decision to scrap tuition fees, whilst clearly attracting the votes of young students who are traditionally more left than right, is not the solution. Fees as a rough whole have not deterred students from going to university, with over half a million people entering universities in September 2017 to begin their first year.

“University education is a broken system that requires a top-down review to assess and address the biggest issues”

Charging £9,250 a year, however, brings with it expectations about the level of teaching, academic support and mental health support university should be providing as standard. This question of whether students are getting what they pay for has cropped up periodically since the £9,000 fee cap come into force. The biggest issue with tuition fees, though, is how much pressure they put on students to do well at university, develop skills outside of their degrees, while also being a student, and having the so-called university ‘experience’.

University education is a broken system that requires a top-down review to assess and address the biggest issues. Tuition fees should not be the focus of Theresa May’s review into the education system at this moment in time. In fact, to suggest so whilst lecturers and university staff are all set to strike over the attack on their pensions is bordering on ignorant.

Whilst lecturers have every reason to strike over the perceived issues with the new system of pensions proposed, in the short-term, it is students who are going to suffer. Losing what could be up to three weeks-worth of contact hours is unfair for those final years or postgraduates, who often have career choices riding on these final few months of university. Talk about piling pressure on top of pressure. This all comes as more and more students question the level of teaching and whether they are really getting what they pay for.

“It is little wonder why there is what has been called a mental health crisis at universities across the UK.”

University students up and down the country have been emailing Vice-Chancellors to call for a refund on their tuition fees. It is easy to see why. Take my MA History course as an example. With five hours a week, with ten sessions per the four modules I have, the strikes could leave me missing 12 hours of my total 100 hours of scheduled contact hours across the academic year. Of my £6525 worth of course fees, that’s around £780 worth of tuition I am missing out on. Having that back would do me a rather large financial favour (but that just isn’t going to happen).

University is about the ‘experience’ as much as it is about the piece of paper at the end. However, the university experience, which nearly every university will discuss at length in prospectuses and open days, has changed dramatically.

“The amount of money students have to live on at university has decreased.”

Despite the media often representing students as effectively booze-fuelled, most studies have shown that students are going out less than ever before. One poll by Nationwide and Opinium found that only 31% of the students they surveyed went out more than three times a week, down from 42% of those parental graduates they surveyed. Much of this dip can be explained by financial pressures. For a lot of people (myself included), going out even once or twice a week is not financially viable.

This, in turn, has only been made worse by the scrapping of maintenance grants. Not only has the level of debt at the time of leaving university increased, but the amount of money students have to live on at university has decreased. Those from larger middle-class families, where families earn a decent wage yet have many children to support, find themselves with the lowest loan amounts, and a family who cannot supplement their living costs out of their own pockets. Recent figures found that parents were expected to give their children an average of £221 a month to supplement the amount of money students have to live in. For this to be the expectation is surely an admittance that the system is fundamentally flawed.

“Means-testing for maintenance loans is a terrible system done terribly.”

Nor should families be expected to do so. Means-testing for maintenance loans is a terrible system done terribly. Either introduce the post-graduate system of maintenance loans (where you can ask for up to £10,280 regardless of family income) or re-introduce maintenance grants. The system in place now is the worst of both worlds. Asking your parents for money can be embarrassing and suggests that students are spending more than they should be, which is often not the case.

Between fees and maintenance costs, it is little wonder why there is what has been called a mental health crisis at universities across the UK. The pressure of coming out of university with over £50,000 of debt is coupled with the constant bombardment by Students’ Unions about the ‘experience’ and branching out, and developing soft, transferable skills alongside degree-based ones.

No one likes to admit that the university life they feel obliged to perpetuate on social media is a complete illusion, or that their course isn’t going nearly as well as you may think. With so many people going to university, and so many jobs seemingly requiring at least a bachelor’s in ‘something-ology’, the pressure of coming up with a decent grade can make the pressure even worse.

“A year-long review of tuition fees is not the answer.”

It can feel like you have to go to university to get a job, and then get to university and you are suddenly told that a degree is not enough. When your future seems so uncertain and your present is so draining, no wonder 82% of students say they experience stress and anxiety.

A year-long review of tuition fees is not the answer. Keep them at £9,250 if you want, but review teaching, and make sure university lecturers are actually here to teach students. Review mental health services and ensure they are sufficient and review the channels in which students feel they need support. Review the maintenance loan system, so that everyone from every social background has the means to live without worrying about money.

Review these and suddenly university looks a much less broken system and £9,250 a much less controversial figure.

Connor Higgs

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Featured image courtesy of EU2017EE Estonian Presidency on Flickr. Image use license here. No changes made to this image.

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One Comment
  • DaVid
    26 February 2018 at 19:38
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    Hi Connor, you have a point with what the real issues are but to be fair to the government it is actually a review of all post-18 funding, not just tuition fees.

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