By Ethan and Anna
Those receiving their A-level results today may well enjoy university, but they’re getting a bad deal.
Universities are ripping their students off. Some of the most prestigious establishments in the country are getting away with an amateurish effort at education. My fellow students were probably too busy getting pissed to notice that, in 1998, when tuition fees were introduced: they became consumers. When payment is introduced to a previously free system, the dynamic between an organisation and its customers should change, shouldn’t it? I don’t think that it has.
Like many public services previously introduced to the market, universities are insulated from its harshest effects. They have a monopoly on middle-class expectations. From family, to teachers, to peers, the message is: if you want to get a job, you’ve got to go to university. Questioning the validity of that message is met with disbelief and that familiar patronising tone. Whether the promise of riches and fulfilment are true or not, universities seem to be guaranteed custom – so they can treat you how they like.
Having bought into the notion of university as innately good, too few students question the service that they’re getting. Most are utterly disinterested in the work that they’re doing – for the most part, guess what, they don’t really care about 19th century philosophy. For all the personal statements that declare a love for the subject and relentless enthusiasm, most students are in it for the promise of a job with lots of money attached, and some nights out getting drunk; or, they just couldn’t see any other option.
The familiar patronising tone is also found throughout university. Students are treated like children, despite the fact that the financial burden incurred is of adult proportions. Recently, at my university, students were asked to fill out module choice forms, detailing how they wanted their degrees to pan out over the next two years. I was sent an email from The Departmental Administrator explaining that I’d “failed” to register for one type of module. But when I wrote back explaining my choice of modules; how I had checked this with a number of staff; and questioning exactly what I had done wrong, I received a curt reply: “You are currently 30-credits short for next academic year so I think you should pick another module.” A student wanted to know more about how their £3225 a year degree worked; and the response suggested indignation at that student even daring to question the system.
This incident doesn’t stand alone either. Customer service at universities regularly carries this kind of arrogance and disinterest. It’s not unusual for essays to be handed back with a mark and three lines of feedback – in which word count or technicalities of referencing are detailed as the central cause for concern. One department handed essays back a week late, explaining, after their own deadline had passed, that there had been a bout of sickness in the department’s admin office and that the head of department had been away because of a personal issue. For similarly half-hearted excuses, a student would have had marks deducted, but it seems that universities are only accountable to themselves. It’s amateurish.
Beyond amateurish, the value of a degree more generally seems more open to question than it once was. As fees rise, students won’t be getting more than four lectures and two seminars a week, because the money we pay is becoming increasingly detached from the end product. The value of the degree seems almost entirely tied to the prospect of the job at the end of it – but is that really acceptable? It certainly doesn’t make for an enjoyable academic experience; having to simply “get through it,” as people keep explaining. I’m also not sure that the link between a degree, a job, and money, is as strong as it once was. In January, recent graduate employment was running at 20%, which is only marginally below the overall percentage of youth unemployment. Graduates are currently expected to earn more than those who haven’t bought the certificate, but will even this be the case if the majority of people own one?
The requirement of a degree is now the status quo for a lot jobs. It’s difficult to understand why jobs that previously only required you to turn up on time now demand years of, “any subject considered”, training. Competition is obviously high at the moment, and employees are able to select highly qualified candidates when this is ultimately unnecessary, but when a degree, a Master’s, and an unpaid internship are needed in order to pass the application stage, it surely means only the richest students can succeed.
“The customer is always right”. Actually, in my experience of universities, the customer is an annoyance that, ideally, would shut up and just hand over the money. It’s a business model that I’m sure many companies would like to emulate – and it’s certainly something that the current coalition is encouraging: raising fees without any consideration of value. Young people are being pushed into ever increasing amounts of debt, and then emerging into a sparse employment market. Surely basic consumer rights, or even simple courtesy, are the least that we can expect in return? We didn’t make the rules, or have any say in them, but if we have to be consumers, can we be proper ones, please?
Switch to our mobile site