Comment Editorial

The Student on Education Reform

Stop monetising our university experience

Why do we go to university? What is it for? Realistically, nowadays, many go solely for that (supposedly) prospect-enhancing piece of paper, and to delay having to go directly into the real world. Don’t get me wrong, many students love their degree subjects, but an equal number are in it because it’s seen as the simplest path to get a good job – although now you probably need a masters for that too.

Sadly, encouraged by universities, students have the mentality of “I’m just here to pass,” taking little to no interest in their education, and doing the bare minimum required to get their grades. The “university experience” is touted to youngsters across Britain, but student satisfaction levels are plummeting, especially at Russell Group universities, allegedly perfect models of higher education.

Russell Group universities, emboldened by their academic status, have lost their grip on student satisfaction. At the moment, universities are run as a business. Realistically, why bother investing money and resources into the student experience when you know that students are going to come and fill your coffers anyway, due to your academic reputation? Universities that are less academically valued have to work to draw students in, staking their reputation on student satisfaction, whilst Russell Group members rest on their laurels.

According to the 2020 National Student Survey, which ranks student satisfaction, the only Russell Group University in the top twenty is St Andrews, whilst the University of Edinburgh comes a dismal 136th out of 154 institutions. With some students’ fees having tripled since 2004, I think it is fair for students to demand more out of their universities.

We should demand better teaching, a more holistic education, inclusivity, and, most importantly, for the goal of universities to be student-based, not cash-based. There are more things wrong with our system than I can name in just one article, but there some which urgently need changing.

Firstly, universities must ask themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice teaching quality for research. We have somehow normalised the idea that those who lecture us in top tier universities need not have any actual teaching qualifications. It is only when you stop, and take a deeper look, that this seems bizarre.

You do not need an official teaching qualification in order to lecture at universities. To me, this is utterly absurd. When hiring lecturers, most universities demand masters or PhDs as qualifications, with a (rarely used) option for new lecturers to do a part-time teaching qualification as they start working. Why on earth are we being taught by lecturers who have never been trained in how to effectively get information across?

To assume that teaching is a natural skill is an insult to teachers, who undertake intense training and placements, and are often required to continue taking courses throughout their career, right down to the nursery level. By requiring postgraduate qualifications rather than teaching qualifications, universities conflate intelligence and research skills with the ability to teach, which is just plain wrong.

Every student has had the experience of being taught by a lecturer who is clearly very intelligent, and a specialist in their field, but has no idea how to make information accessible or relevant. Often the most intelligent academics are the worst teachers, because knowledge comes so naturally to them that they struggle to explain what seems obvious. Or those who are passionate about their specialty fail to make their one lecture apply to the course as a whole.

I appreciate my lecturers, and find many of them informative, but there are also many who are only lecturers for the research opportunities it provides them. This is not a good system. We deserve to be taught by trained professionals.

I understand that a major purpose of university is to promote academic research, as well as education, and to give students access to leaders in their academic fields, but that doesn’t mean that we should lose out on teaching quality.

I also think that universities should take greater pride in their role as the setting in which young people mature, and take responsibility for helping this process along. I am not advocating a “nanny” university, simply a university system that takes pride in helping young people to adjust to adult life, and teaching them more than just academic skills. I think we can all agree that no parent, school, or society is perfect, so we are far from fully formed when we pack our bags for university.

Although we class ourselves as adults at 18, we still have a long way to go in our development, and the skills we need are not always picked up by socialisation, especially in a flawed society like ours. In articles I have written in the past I have interviewed two professional psychologists, both of which recommended that universities provide more pastoral and holistic teaching. Dr Nina Burrowes advocated more teaching on consent, and Dr Ruth Caleb for students and staff to be taught more about mental health.

Although things seem to be heading in the right direction, schools are still not teaching us emotional and social intelligence, the most important skills for going forward into society, and changing the world. I believe it is up to universities to take up the mantle. University is the context where most people are truly independent for the first time, and can interact with their peers freely – which is not always a good thing. Long term education and training in mental health, consent, and other crucial social issues could only be a good thing for students and universities.

Next up: inclusivity. “Top” universities are not inclusive. Only 6 per cent of UK students attend private schools, but Russell Group universities, as a whole, give less than 80 per cent of places to state school students. In Edinburgh, a wildly disproportionate 66 per cent of pupils come from state schools. This lack of diversity is equally evident when ethnicity is examined.

Class-wise, even once state school students pass the extra hurdles and arrive, within universities there is borderline segregation. Take halls of residence, for example. Every Russell Group University has a hall renowned for being especially full of private school youths: Edinburgh has Pollock, Exeter has Holland, Bristol has Churchill, UCL has Garden Halls.
In these places, university accommodation is essentially a hotel for the richest 10 per cent of young people to mix. In Chancellors Court, Pollock, one can pay extra for an en-suite, and in Holland, Exeter, you can pay £400 more a year for “a room with a view.” This is just ludicrous.

I can still remember when my brother went off to Bristol University for the first time, my parents telling him that this was his time to branch out from his privileged background and to meet a diverse mix of people, only to be met, in the halls car park, by hundreds of Range Rovers and the classic network of private school friends of friends. If universities cared less about money, and more about inclusion, perhaps they wouldn’t act only as playpens for the privileged to meet more people exactly like them, and instead could function as genuine actors of social mobility.

Finally, and the underlying reason for the above issues, is that universities in modern Britain are run as profit-making enterprises. Universities spend millions on fancy buildings and high-tech labs to attract international students to bring in yet more money, whilst neglecting student mental health. Universities are money making machines. But very little of this money goes towards students.

According to their financial records, Edinburgh university has £558 million sitting in investment funds, doing very little for students, present or future. They make thousands in profits from student accommodation, and millions in profit every year – just check the financial records. Why is this necessary? Why is this money not reinvested into us?

It is an idealistic pipe dream, but why could universities not be run solely as centres of education, not as centres of profit? The time to make these changes is now. Covid has disrupted any semblance of normal university life, and students and universities are struggling. This is an opportunity to turn British universities from cash cows, sapping students of their money and energy, into the best they could be. Access to education should be a right, not a privilege afforded only to those with the ability to oil the wheels of higher education’s money grabbing machine. University might not be the right setting for everyone, but the opportunity should be there for all, and this is unlikely to happen until the sector is not for profit.

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