Before he went to university, Jack O’Neill prepared for his adventure by watching the comedy drama Fresh Meat. O’Neill, 19, is an undergraduate from Plymouth who spends his term time in a house-share, so he should have found Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s show about the lives of six students relatable.
There was alcohol, sex, nocturnalism, fridge politics, even the occasional essay crisis. Some of those things must have resonated. But O’Neill, who will soon start the final year of a degree in history and international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, has reservations. “They’re often partying and going out,” he says, “and there never seems to be any sense of the impact of that.” I’m already starting to feel sorry for him when he adds: “I have to think, ‘Well, the food budget will need to be cut this week.’”
O’Neill’s restraint is in stark contrast to the image many people have of the student lifestyle. And yet O’Neill enjoys his degree and, who knows, may one day describe these as the best years of his life. But he will evaluate his experience on criteria that are unrecognisable to those who were educated in the era of grants, and even to the generation that paid for its higher education after tuition fees were introduced in 1998 but before they advanced to a potential £9,250 annually (in England) in 2012.
The cost of higher education is rising perilously. At the start of the last academic year, maintenance grants (for poorer students) were replaced with maintenance loans. From September, these student loans will be subject to an interest rate of 6.1%, outstripping the rate of many commercial loans. Even Andrew Adonis, who as an adviser to Tony Blair helped to design the current system, said last weekend that tuition fees should be scrapped. But while debate has focused on the fairness of fees, are we missing the broader impact they have had on university life? How have tuition fees reshaped our understanding of education itself?
Debbie Lisle has been a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast for 17 years, so she has plenty of pre-fees experience. She grew up in Vancouver, Canada, “where there have always been tuition fees”, but even so the pace of change in the UK has surprised her. “The marketisation of higher education is changing the whole culture of what it means to be at university,” she says, rattling off examples. Administrators “refer unashamedly to students as clients”. Online, undergraduates select modules “by putting them in a shopping basket … When you monetise, the ethos changes, the language changes.”
In particular, the question of value begins to impose itself in the relationship between students and their tutors. For Lisle there is a constant sense of being “monitored”. Contact hours – a phrase rarely heard before tuition fees – are counted. Feedback time is noted. And all is subject to customer review, in the form of the National Student Survey. This year, for the first time, the survey found that more students in England think their degree is poor value (35%) than good value (32%).
“Students come with really high expectations,” says one senior lecturer at a London university, who prefers to remain anonymous. “Students complain all the time: ‘This course isn’t value for money’, ‘I didn’t get this’, or ‘I haven’t got that’. And I agree with them,” she says. “Our bosses are giving us more and more students every year … So they get less time with us. It’s a 15-minute tutorial. It seems the more they’re paying for the less they’re getting.”
Something has changed since she was an undergraduate. The relationship between students and tutors itself is shifting. “You give them a mark and they come back and say: ‘I deserved more than this,’” says Lisle. Well, if you can take back an ill-fitting dress, then why not an ill-fitting grade? (After all, universities have obligations under consumer protection law, as clarified in a 2015 Competition and Markets Authority report.) “You can see the pressure,” Lisle adds. “Academic judgment is being squeezed.”
Sensing students’ power as consumers, universities have conjured up a phrase to describe the best approach to providing satisfactory service. It is “the student experience”, and it covers a much broader shopping list of expectations than education alone.
Type the words “campus refurbishment UK” in to Google, and you will find half a million results. From De Montfort to Swansea, Birmingham, Manchester and York, university websites boast improvement projects citing the exact million of planned expense. “It’s all about investing in infrastructure,” says Kehinde Andrews, a senior lecturer in sociology at Birmingham City University. “Coffee shops, sports facilities, really posh accommodation.” Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says “lightly, flippantly” that if someone can’t find a university campus, he just tells them to look for the cranes.
The refurbishments are a response in part to a change in lifestyle. Between 2005 and 2013 the proportion of young adults who were teetotal increased by more than 40%, according to the Office for National Statistics. “There isn’t the same drinking culture,” Hillman says. “I was at Oxford Brookes University not long ago. Every single seat in their shared working environment was taken. The student union bar? Empty! Two people were sitting there because they couldn’t get a seat in the working environment. No drinks, all their papers out.”
Being a student these days means hard work. Daniel Granville is 22 and graduated two weeks ago from St Andrews with a 2:1 in English. “From the moment I stepped on to campus, everyone was extremely focused,” he says. “We’re plugged into the news 24/7. The economy isn’t as stable as it used to be. Job security doesn’t really exist any more. We are well aware that we have to work hard from the get-go, so we can get the best internships and the best jobs.”
I worry that this doesn’t sound like much fun. “There is more pressure,” agrees a counsellor at a Russell Group university. “We see a lot of students who don’t feel able to go out because they’re too busy working. They don’t feel it’s valid to have fun.” Sometimes students tell her: “I went out last night, and it was great, but I felt guilty all the time.”
She sounds less concerned about people having too good a time than people having too little of one. “Oh, definitely,” she says.
One of the reasons for this is that students have become more focused on the result of their degree – the end product, if you like. After all, if, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies says, the poorest 40% of students will be graduating with £57,000 of debt, there is, understandably, a desire for reassurance that the expense has been worth it. “We are very focused on what is coming after university,” Granville at St Andrews says. He joined societies – “the ones that look good on the CV. The law society, the debating society, vice-president of the African & Caribbean society …”
Granville is not alone in being pragmatic about extracting value from his university experience. While Izzy Lenga, 23, graduating from the University of Birmingham, doesn’t see herself as a consumer, her language is highly professionalised. “I made an effort to be a stakeholder, to shape my education by joining the NUS,” she says. Prudence seems to prevail. “There’s a lot of opportunity to regain some of the money you’ve paid,” Amy Lees says. She is about to start the third year of an economics degree at the University of Sheffield. “I did a German course, which was no-credit but free … I definitely [felt like] a consumer. I do feel it’s a business and you are buying their goods.”
Overwhelmingly, students’ sense of value is located in their future employability. “There is this very, very strong sense that experiences have to be justified by how good they’re going to look on a CV,” Granville says. “People [are] very anxious about the ‘usefulness’ of what they’re studying.”
And increasingly, “usefulness” equates to employment. After all, most students are half in the world of work already – how else to pay the shortfall of maintenance loans? So perhaps it is inevitable that employability has become a form of currency within universities. Indeed, the QS Graduate Employability Rankings, which initially ran as a pilot and is now a full ratings scheme, scores universities according to how many of their graduates find work. Parents are a common sight at open days, with more than one lecturer I spoke to noting their “pushy questions about income projections”.
“Universities are chucking money into careers,” Lisle says. She recalls attending “employer forums” where employers including McDonald’s talked to academics and students about things such as, “What skills do employers need? How can we embed these skills in our curriculum?” Employability is clearly valuable to students – but Lisle felt that the role of the academic expert was undermined and that “this was effectively getting employers to dictate the curriculum”.
All the undergraduates I speak to know what jobs they want: Lees wants to work in trading, Granville wants to be a consultant, O’Neill is eyeing a career in humanitarian aid. No wonder there is a sort of professionalisation of the student life – the pragmatism about internships, the long hours in libraries, and even O’Neill’s sense that “much as the situation is frustrating, [fees] have helped me to value money”.
The transformation of students into consumers of education has had an effect that is both empowering and depleting. Three years ago, Nick Hillman had the idea of introducing some questions on wellbeing to the National Student Survey. “I assumed we would get positive responses,” he says. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Only 19% of respondents in the most recent survey described themselves as experiencing “low anxiety” compared with 41% of the population at large. In December 2015, an NUS survey found that 78% of students had experienced mental health issues in the past year.
Chloe Price started her degree in the first year that the £9,250 fees came in. She studied 3D animation at the University of Hertfordshire and works at a production company that does virtual reality and games (as if to prove the synergy between education and employment, her employer was her tutor). “My course was very demanding,” she says. “In the third year, I didn’t go out at all … Some people dropped out, some went into counselling through the university. I did.”
The university has recently increased the number of staff in its mental health team and offers students a range of professional and specialist services. A spokeswoman says: “The health and wellbeing of our students is extremely important to us.”
Price says that the pressure “was no one’s fault … I kept thinking: ‘I’m not good enough. I’m not as good as that person …’ You want to get the job at that big games studio; the one that 10 people are vying for.” Her housemates were on the same course. “We all stayed in our bedrooms, working … I sat in my room and animated for hours straight without pulling the blinds up. I was going to bed at 7am and getting up at four in the afternoon.”
Undergraduates are working so hard, I say to Kehinde Andrews. I expect him to agree, but he laughs. “I haven’t noticed that at all,” he says. “Maybe the opposite. There’s a much greater sense of entitlement around having a degree. They’re not necessarily going to put in 100% effort and they’re quite brazen about it.”
At one recent seminar he took, few attendees appeared to know the texts, and when he asked who out of the 24 students had done the reading, only two raised their hands. He sent the others away, and told them to come to the next seminar better informed. But the following week, “The response wasn’t to do the reading. They just didn’t turn up.”
I am puzzled how to square this behaviour with the intensity of application that the undergraduates I have spoken to have described. If a degree matters more now, having cost so much, and its value must be converted to the value of employment, then why skip seminars? “You don’t need to work for a commodity,” Andrews says. “You’ve already earned it because you’ve paid for it.”
He is not alone in noticing that anxiety about the final grade has created a kind of separation of product from the process of learning. Andrews expected higher attendance at seminars when tuition fees were introduced, but “if anything, it’s worse”. Similarly, the senior lecturer in London says she has been marking students’ work “and we haven’t seen them for three years. We should know what they look like and we don’t. It’s crazy.”
Lisle believes that students have become “highly instrumental”. Does she mean that they view their education as a tool? “What I’ve noticed is that they’re more demanding,” she says. “They’ll say things like: ‘I need a first.’ Not necessarily: ‘What do I need to do to get a first?’ There seems to be not a lot of room for them to fuck things up.
“This is the time for you to make a lot of mistakes. You should be trying things out. That’s how you figure out your voice.” When she encourages creative thinking, students panic. Sometimes, she asks them to design their own essay questions. “But many find that incredibly stressful. They’re anxious. ‘What if I get it wrong?’
“You will have meetings with them in advance of their hand-in time in which they run through all their sentences that might be controversial,” says one senior tutor of English literature, who has been teaching for 25 years. “‘Can I say this? Is it too left-field?’ They’re highly perfectionist. They are always worried about making sure they are delivering what’s required of them.”
It seems very strange that students should be seen as both demanding consumers and timid thinkers. But perhaps one leads to the other. Certainly the English literature tutor believes that “there is a customer entitlement that erodes students’ sense of personal entitlement”. So even as they demand more of the service, they are “more submissive to the institution”. There is “an alliance of subjugation”, he says, in which “they feel they have got to do what’s asked of them, and we feel we have to help them achieve what’s asked of them. It makes me quite sad. I want a student who says: ‘Are you sure about that? Why do you think that?’ But those are fewer and further apart.”
No doubt fees are not alone responsible for these changes; the broader corporatisation of university life, complete with vice-chancellor fat cats, has surely helped to alter the kind of learning that is on offer. But it seems an incredibly damaging double bind that the act of paying such a high price for an education should itself instigate changes that limit that education. Maybe students find it hard to take risks in their thinking because they feel they have already taken a risk – and the risk is the debt. And instead of feeling that their broader community, their elders, are happy to invest in their potential to develop as humans, they must invest in themselves as future earners – and pay the price for years to come.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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