“I don’t have any, and even if I did I certainly wouldn’t give it to you!”
I didn’t say the above – I held my tongue. The guy who phoned outside of office hours sounded like he was just out of university and was probably grateful to be in his job given the devastatingly high unemployment rates for 16-24 year olds that were released today. (See the BBC report here) He was probably still at primary school when I was at university, therefore having a go at him for my crap time at my first university was (from my point of view) a completely pointless thing to do.
I wasn’t going to write anything today – I am still of the opinion that I need to reduce the frequency of blog posts that I write but stuff keeps on happening. In this case, a really random ‘out of the blue’ request for a donation from the first of my old universities. (I had a better time doing a post-graduate diploma at a different university after ticking the 2:1 (hons) box for my undergraduate degree).
I can’t recall the last time the university alumni office phoned me. This may have been the first time. Otherwise the only contact I get is the annual pieces of junk mail telling me about people I’ve never heard of in a manner that reads like one of those mass-produced family updates now the staple of upwardly mobile affluent families…followed by a plea for donations. But why would I want to donate? I had a rubbish time there. At various occasions in the years towards the end of my time there and in the immediate period after, I said to myself that I’d have been quite happy for the university to have been swallowed up by the countryside that it is set in.
I graduated from university having felt that I had not been stretched or inspired academically, with a huge amount of debt and on anti-depressants. The sense of both anger and utter disappointment was massive. I remember having a conversation with someone sat next to me at the graduation ceremony where we both moaned to each other about how we had both felt let down by the institution, and how it felt like it had never made any effort to make its students feel ‘part’ of it. We were just cash cows. And this was from the second cohort of students paying the “up front” fees.
In the run up to our finals, I moaned about what I saw was a pathetic return on my investment to an acquaintance from outside the EU. Her response was that she had similar views and experiences but decided that she didn’t care and wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it. This was in part because her fees and living expenses were being covered by family but also because the sense of anger and frustration had got to the stage where she said that it was just not worth doing anything about it. Get the degree certificate and run.
I covered the policy failures in my post Fees, universities and philanthropy, as well as some of the more personal aspects of my experiences. This post – on the back of that phone call from the alumni office underlines the points I made about the nature of the relationship between students and the institutions within which they study. The model of ‘bums on seats in return for government funding’ provided an incentive just to get students in – irrespective of their aptitude and potential, and irrespective of the university’s capacity to provide the facilities required to support the ever growing student populations. We know this from the reliance universities have on private sector housing, and the devastating impact that this can have on local communities – whether it is the quality of housing or the viability of local shops and services for those who live there permanently. Talk to any inner city London borough chief executive/housing director to find out the impact of a population that has a high turnover.
The collapse of university applications this year is going to have a huge impact on some universities. My take for quite some time has been that the arbitrary target of trying to get 50% of school leavers into higher education was flawed because it was based on a number of assumptions. These included:
- that 50% of school leavers had the aptitude for higher education upon leaving school
- that an academic education at the expense of vocational education that the university model provides was what the economy needed (on that scale)
- that the ‘earnings premium’ for graduates would cover loan repayments and debts incurred from studying, leaving enough left over to justify going to university in the first place.
Thus we have a number of institutions that are currently organised for a ‘cram them in, pile them high’ funding and delivery model. Is this model now unsustainable in the ‘higher fees’ environment? Or will universities have to change to a more expensive and intensive ‘collegiate’ model where universities will have to make more of an effort to interact with, stimulate and provide more opportunities for their students? I wrote the following in the last blogpost:
“There’s part of me which would have loved to have had a life-long ‘relationship’ with an institution that I had been a student of. One where the people who make up the institution don’t treat you as just another number when you are in the institution and a potential cash cow once you’ve left it…”
“…The bringing in of fees affected my mindset in terms of my relationship with the university – and I remember giving my personal tutor a hard time over it at the end of my first year. In a nutshell I said that I spent most of the first year covering the stuff I had done during my A-Levels and didn’t feel that I had got ‘value for money’ (a concept that we were taught as being a fundamental pillar to the economics degree I was studying for) for both the fees and my overall expenditure.”
During my time at university, I never got the feeling that anyone within the institution was proactively looking out for me. The bloodbath that was the annual search for accommodation was administered in a manner by staff who seemed to be so emotionally removed from what people were going through at the time. It wasn’t just me, it was other people too.
I’m not going to write in detail about the impact house-hunting had on my physical and mental health – suffice to say that spending the first few weeks of my second term based in a travellers hostel didn’t help. I was lucky that there were a sound group of people staying there who did look out for me – restoring my faith in humanity where I had lost it in my university. It was this experience (as well as the following experience of living with a lovely group of people in a little hovel a 1 hour bus ride from the campus that was shut down by the council at the end of the academic year) which has made me red hot on housing and transport issues.
I watch housing and transport policy debates like a hawk because I know what it’s like to live in a place unfit for human habitation and I know what it’s like to be dependent on public transport to get to and from university, work and now college for my teacher training. I know the devastating impact that long commutes and poor &/or insecure housing can have on people’s health – because it happened to me. Did the institution care? In my book it didn’t because of the policies and actions it took – in particular not ensuring that there was suitable accommodation for its students.
My most recent learning at teacher training college is also speaking volumes (positively) about the roles and responsibilities of teachers – and their relationships with students. In particular, there is a focus around equalities issues and anything that could be a barrier to students’ learning – intervening early and sensitively when these are spotted. That means having regular conversations with students – especially if you are a personal tutor. It means not changing personal tutors every year. It means ensuring that student support services can intervene when there is a serious risk to the health and safety of a student – which also means that the various student and public services that students use are able to communicate with each other.
Now, some people may take the view that the only person responsible for the student is the student, and that ‘in the real world’ they should be allowed to sink or swim by themselves. After all, isn’t the same true for everyone else? Well, no. It’s one of the reasons why we have public services. Just because you do not need social services does not mean the same is true for other people. I’d like to think that one of the things that makes us human is that we look out for each other. Institutions – whether in education, employment or otherwise, that look out for the wellbeing of those that work for it (& not at the expense of others or in breach of the law) I think are all the more better for it. The sort of goodwill that comes out of a sense of belonging as a result of how an institution behaves is the sort that is both difficult to measure but is also of the sort that money cannot buy. Not only are you ensuring that those within those institutions are functioning to the best of their ability, they are all the more likely to become advocates for that institution, rather than critics – or dare I say it, even enemies.
So why didn’t I leave? Several reasons:
- Investment – financial, time-wise and emotional - I had invested so much in selecting this university that I did not want to ‘write off’ all of that investment and start again from scratch
- Pride – I did not want to have to go back home, tail between my legs having ‘failed’ to complete the course
- Mental health problems – given my state of mind at the time, decisions that perhaps I would have taken now were not decisions I was capable of at the time: I was ill.
Given that my first university did not step at all (when ideally it should have stepped in early and sensitively) when I really needed it, I feel absolutely no obligation to return the favour to support whatever scheme or project the university through its alumni office wants to support.
One thing I should say about all of the above was that this all happened ten years ago. A lot may have changed – for a start the vice chancellor that was there then is not there now. For any senior administrator of a college or university reading this, there are some very big public administration lessons in this.
- Are your systems and processes allowing your staff to identify the problems and barriers that are stopping your students achieving their potential?
- Are you collecting any data on the problems that your students are facing to inform you on which areas you need to prioritise?
- Are your staff trained to intervene early and sensitively where they identify problems?
- Do your support systems have the capacity to cope with the problems that students are facing?
In this era of higher fees – which we can probably take as a given will ultimately become a fully-privatised full-fees model (unless some major political upheaval takes place), do your systems of and levels of support for your students justify the fees that they are paying? Because if not, you will have some very big problems in the not too distant future. It’s not all about the quality of lectures and seminars anymore.