This autumn I have watched a number of adverse developments and policy catastrophes wash though the higher education sector and it has taken me until Christmas to blog about it. I haven’t stopped caring about HE, but rather I have felt crushed by the increasing influence of bullies, bigots and billionaires over our lives, and felt dejected by domestic and international politics.
But two recent stories have really stood out to me as evidence that various governments during the 21st century have ensured it is now nearly impossible to be a student in terms that are recognisable to anyone of my generation.
A Twitter thread by Dr Peter Olusoga started with a howl of despondency ‘I don’t want to hear a single word of complaint from you EVER, about ANYTHING’, as he tweeted a picture of an empty lecture theatre. A thoughtful thread continued to try and unpick the reasons why, post-pandemic, or, post lecture capture, students have stopped attending. This trend was reported by others on Twitter, so clearly Dr Olusoga is not alone in his frustration. Readers may appreciate this unusually balanced view from the Daily Mail. Lecturers are often castigated when this happens, on the grounds they should be more entertaining – more ‘relevant’ – and students will arrive.
Of course, lecturers are not entertainers by trade although most do manage to be interesting to students who are prepared to engage. But students are not always studious, in a world where digital distractions and the necessity of paid work claim their time.
Universities, though, appear to have become less committed to providing some of the material necessities for students to be on campus at all. In early December, we heard that a student mother had been suspended by the University of Derby because she wished to bring her young baby to class with her, so that she could finish her degree in Psychology. Although her tutor had agreed that Leah Foster could bring her son in on a temporary basis, they were both over-ruled by a decision citing health and safety.
Understandably, Leah Foster felt that the university was acting in a way which was discriminatory, and which prevented her from being a student. Reading the university’s reassurance on its website, she might be forgiven for assuming that support systems were in place for students in her position. And the University of Derby, like other universities has to publish an Access and Participation statement as a condition of registration with the Office for Students. Additionally, they have a policy of Widening Participation from disadvantaged groups, and they will be carefully overseeing their continuation and progression statistics, as these are critical to their Teaching Excellence Framework rating. So, in view of supporting student parents, there is a lot at stake for Derby, and that is before we start to weigh the public relations and reputational calamity this case has brought to their door.
One obvious solution would be for the university to provide a subsidized (for student parents) nursery. These used to be widespread on university campuses and were also accessible to staff. In many cases they made the difference between someone being able to participate in higher education, or not. They were always over-subscribed, but this just confirmed their necessity. The fact that they are rare today is a scandal, especially when 300 (non-university) nurseries have closed in the last 12 months. I note that Staffordshire University is a noble exception with its award-winning Woodland Nursery.
The next higher education own goal is on the issue of student housing policy. This was interrogated recently by Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe. It appears that some popular universities, especially, but not confined to the Russell Group, have been recruiting more students that they can provide accommodation for. Sometimes, even the city in which the university is located has run out of accommodation in the private rental sector, and we all remember these headlines in the early autumn.
It is not entirely the fault of universities that affordable accommodation within reach of the place of study has come under pressure. This helpful HEPI blog by Stephen Blakey of UNIPOL explains how a combination of the pandemic, universities’ reluctance to take on the risk of owning accommodation and the general flight to privatisation have all conjoined to cause the current chaos for students.
We cannot overlook, though, the contribution of the government’s aim to seed Darwinian competition between universities. It was an inevitable outcome of the policy encouraging students who achieved top A-Level results to ‘trade up’ to higher-ranked universities that there would be overload in the more selective end of the sector. Meanwhile, the press is content to blame grade inflation, and nobody seems to have much sympathy for the course closures and lecturer redundancies which threaten the survival of less-favoured universities. The government shrugs and says students should really check out the availability of accommodation before they apply, which, of course is in the previous December/January. It’s all a mess.
It’s not a mess I was ever confronted with as a student. Of course, my experience was well before the era of mass higher education when only a tiny minority of 18 year olds proceeded to higher education. But we were well supported, if not in the domains of mental health, counselling or disability accommodations. My tuition fees were paid by the local authority. I had a full student grant which was more than adequate to fund accommodation. Our student flats or halls were owned and operated by the university and highly subsidised, as it was recognised that students needed a decent standard of accommodation. They were sparse and bore rudimentary facilities, but they housed students from all backgrounds. There was not, as there is now, student accommodation differentiated by price and luxury. The cost of my room amounted to 27% of my £1100 grant in my first year. I had plenty left over for food, books and travel. Indeed, we were entitled to a refund of ‘excess travel expenses’ which was generously interpreted by my local authority as three return rail fares and a daily return bus fare to campus. This could be claimed at the end of the academic year, so it amounted to a tidy lump sum arriving in late July. In addition to this largesse, my father’s former employer had a benefit scheme whereby they paid most of the assessed parental contribution directly to the student. As my father was a retiree, they paid me £300 each year of my undergraduate degree. During the summer vacation I was able to claim the dole and also housing benefit if I was paying rent, though most landlords settled for a cheap ‘retainer’ fee. Together this funding ensured I never needed to do paid work in either term time or vacation. There really wasn’t any excuse not to be an assiduous student, though, of course, a few too many squandered the nation’s investment in their education.
Since the 1980s there has been enormous expansion of universities and progress towards a target of 50% participation in HE. This has come with the plan that students should pay much more of the full cost of tuition, while graduate beneficiaries such as myself were not asked to make much contribution to the next generation’s education through higher taxes. All universities have been asked to admit more students and to diversify the student body in terms of race, social disadvantage and routes of access. Government has enforced this by arms-length regulation from the Office for Students who require various conditions and Access and Participation Plans (APP) from HEIs.
In terms of the aims of those APPs, however, universities have been required to deflect the intended emphasis from sustaining the students they recruit to ‘diversifying pathways into and through higher education’ with a particular steer to developing apprenticeships. In addition, HEIs are being encouraged to pay more attention to pre-16 attainment. No wonder they have taken their eye off supporting those disadvantaged and marginalised students they do admit by making it possible for them to – you know- participate. But then those of us who have worked in higher education will recognise the paradox of the university policy. Anyone who gains the trust of academics by being committed to actual change, facilitation and implementation of research-based practice to tackle real problems in support of the student experience, will quickly be triaged out of post and replaced with somebody more amenable to faddish ideological showboating.
This brings me to another higher education displacement activity – the mirage of workplace-based learning for all. It is obviously necessary for students of healthcare, engineering, social work and education to gain this kind of experience. But many students of English, history and philosophy might resent the surrender of several weeks of the precious three years they had hoped to devote to academic enquiry, intellectual enrichment and personal growth. Many of the students I taught had a more varied work history than I did and were well capable of reflecting on the relevance of their studies in linguistics to the workplace. The certainly didn’t need ten weeks of a placement in a bookshop to enhance their employability. It is noticeable that the same VCs who are now telling asking students to report lecturers who speak to students about the reasons for the current UCU industrial action, are entirely happy to sacrifice actual subject learning to a period of contrived, grafted-on ‘work experience’.
What this communicates to students is that subject learning is subordinate to vocational experience. Coming to class is unimportant, even if you can afford the bus fare from your over-priced accommodation. After the ‘pivot’ to online learning during the pandemic, it is hard to convince students that attendance is still a necessity when they can find course materials and lecture capture on the VLE learning room. Any of the excitement of taking risks or learning to exercise any actual academic judgement is obviated by the use of marking criteria which spell out for students exactly what is expected. No wonder students become alienated on their ‘student journey’ as it is now known. It must seem impersonal and synthetic.
It is going to take some real commitment and imagination to get them back. Mass higher education should not mean an unfulfilling experience or unnecessary barriers to study. Jim Dickinson points to timetabling solutions where students have classes on two or three days a week, offering the benefits of an immersive experience and time for paid work – if only there was more of that on campus. I also wonder why universities involve so few students in staff research projects; I’ve seen this work well at Cornell University and Nottingham Trent and it is a better spur to engagement than work experience. But we need to go further and ensure that some of those benefits we had before the financial crash are replaced: childcare, option choice, workable staff-student ratios. My fear is that managers are too busy placating politicians and other ‘stakeholders’ and they have lost sight of the real problems that have caused universities to unravel in the 2020s.