25 September 2023

Pity the freshers starting university this week


As students across the UK embark on day one of Freshers Week, the news that the number of students going to university has dropped for the first time in five years should not surprise anyone who has any regular dealings with higher education.

Whether you are a student yourself, a parent of an undergraduate (as I am), or a sixth form teacher, it is difficult to find anyone who thinks that over those five years the experience – and value – of attending university has not significantly deteriorated.

Universities seem to have forgotten that their core business is to ensure that their students have an education that not only imbues them with a secure knowledge (and, hopefully, love) of their subject, but also makes them more employable. In return for this, they charge up to £9,250 per year (which does not include accommodation).  At that price you’d better be sure it is value for money.

But the experience of studying at a university in this country is becoming a desultory affair. The ongoing strike action by academics has resulted in work going unmarked, lectures cancelled, resources intended to support students in their increasingly independent studies removed from departmental websites and, most spitefully of all, allowing students to graduate without knowing what class of degree they were awarded

According to UCAS, those sky-high fees should cover lectures, seminars, and tutorials, course administration costs, access to course-related facilities and equipment (such as laboratories and studios), as well as field trips essential for the completion of courses, and the graduation ceremony.  Almost all of these have been wrecked by the endless industrial action carried out by members of the University and College Union. The next wave of strikes starts on Monday, and tens of thousands of students will, once again, have no lectures, and no contact with their tutors. It is difficult to think of any other business that could treat its customers so shoddily and continue to charge them. 

Walk around many modern campuses and you will be struck by their sheer size. Whole swathes of cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Exeter have been annexed by various HE colleges to house their (up until now) ever-expanding numbers. And in return for all the extra income those students bring in, Vice Chancellors’ salaries have gone up to enviously high levels. Meanwhile, privately-owned student accommodation continues to be in short supply and of a poor standard. Such discrepancies further confirm the impression that universities are no longer run for the benefit of the students. 

Given all this it is not surprising that students now threaten to sue their colleges over the disruption they are facing from lecturers who are more militant than they are. Of course, getting a degree is still essential if you are going to go into many professions, but increasingly schools are beginning to question not just the value of studying in this country, but also whether other routes into the workplace should be explored.  

For many of my generation, university was a place of wonder – a rite of passage that would take you from childhood to adulthood, opening up the beauty of knowledge, and preparing you for life. Now, for too many young people, it is an atomised place, where they ‘attend’ lectures online from their bedrooms, with little meaningful contact from academic staff, incurring life-long levels of debt. This neglect is a scandal, and a betrayal of the hope and optimism so many student will be feeling as they arrive at university this week.

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David James is deputy head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.