It’s that time of year again, when thousands of diffident young people fill their parents’ cars with boxes and Ikea bags and head off to their chosen university; when the sober realisation hits that the revels of summer are over, and work must begin again. However, all is not well for UK universities. There is a growing discontent over fees, teaching contact hours and students’ (and their parents’) ever-lessening satisfaction with the service received for the ever-increasing tuition fees.
Universities have grown, says a uk2020 Timebomb report, into a ‘cartel, virtually all charging the same, stifling new competition and slowing reform; helped by flaws in the design of the funding system’. I felt this when I started out at university in 2014 but I never really questioned the monstrous fees I’d be charged, my thinking essentially being ‘What’s approximately thirty thousand out of a lifetime?’ Given that I was the first in my family to go to university (for what it’s now worth), the symbolism was also a contributing factor.
Discontent is overwhelmingly driven by one simple feeling: that the amount of time, effort and resources that universities put into teaching is not commensurate with the amount of money that students pay. Yet the effort to encourage young people to choose university over technical training in colleges or apprenticeships was quite a conscious one. In 1984, there were only 70 universities; now there are 170. The exponential growth in further education continued throughout New Labour, tied in to their intention to decrease inequality and, ostensibly, to increase social mobility, though this has subsequently proved to be not quite so simple. University is no longer a passport to a career and good pay.
Today’s young people soon surely will tire of the major political parties trying to buy their vote with unrealistic promises on fees, the most recent being Labour’s startlingly unbudgeted manifesto pledge to scrap fees and Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to ‘deal with’ student debt, which was widely interpreted to mean to ‘write off’.
By contrast the key and practical recommendation of the uk2020 Timebomb report is the introduction of two-year university courses and a credit transfer system. Two-year courses are an obvious solution to the long, sluggish and underwhelming experience of a three-year course. They would be cheaper, more stimulating and compel professors and lecturers who are too often preoccupied with research to teach (after all, it is ‘tuition’ fees that students pay). The proposed credit transfer system could also work well if the current system was adapted. Furthermore, a survey conducted for the report found that 47 per cent of the students asked would be ‘very interested’ or ‘interested’ in doing a two-year course. In fact these courses have been on offer at the University of Buckingham, the oldest private non-profit university in the UK, for many years.
The first year of my BA required just 40 per cent for a pass grade, which is absurd in a supposedly meritocratic institution for what was essentially an introductory year. It was a waste of time and money. Two-year courses with a compulsory learning and literacy pack to complete between A-levels and university would be a win-win combination – a win for students less encumbered by debt and a win for Government spared its multi-million-pound debt default. Students taking this up this would further underline the validity of an already sound idea.