As this year’s successful A Level students prepare for university and second- and third-year undergraduates get ready to return, they have much to contend with that disturbed previous student cohorts either less or not at all. Here are 5 questions they need to address.
1. What is normal?
Most of us can remember the excitement of our first term at university – making lots of friends, attending parties, optimistically joining more societies than we would ever have time to keep up with. Some of us had second-year mentors to guide us through the bewildering if exciting maze of new opportunities. However, this year’s second- and third-year students have spent much of their time at university either incarcerated, or severely restricted by, Covid rules. If they have enjoyed a social life or belonged to societies, activity has mostly been by Zoom or Teams. Some have spent nearly all their time in dull halls of residence rooms staring at computer screens or the four dingy walls; others have gone home to their parents and worked from there. Either way, they have missed out on the huge people-interactive benefits that university life used to offer; and while the second-years may manage still to get a taste of it, for most third-years it is too late – they will have to buckle down now and work for their exams. Freshers must therefore carve out their own paths and create their own ‘normal’. On the plus side, perhaps they will come up with a better work-life balance than previous generations achieved.
2. How much face-to-face tuition is fair and reasonable?
This question began as a small dot on the horizon long before Covid reared its head. The so-called ‘massification of education’, accompanied by government caps on fees and escalating pressures on academic time, caused most UK universities to begin to experiment with online learning soon after the beginning of this century. It has much to recommend it: it makes study more feasible for part-time and mature students and distance learners; it benefits those new to a topic or slower learners with more opportunities to practise or revise; if used imaginatively – i.e., ‘blended’ with more traditional lectures and tutorials – it can free up academic time to engage students in discussion and debate, leaving more pedestrian ‘fact teaching’ to the technology. However, Covid not only accelerated the use of online learning solutions but for a time caused traditional teaching to be replaced almost entirely by them. Certain UK universities are reluctant to return to previous methods and are openly cutting back on students’ academic contact hours. How much academic-led tuition should students expect for the fees that they pay? Yet more to the point, how much do they need to become well-rounded adults who can contribute original thinking to future jobs instead of being mere fact-retention robots?
3. Should I expect the university to provide all the learning resources that I need?
This question is probably not uppermost in freshers’ minds as they depart for university, but it’s likely to loom much larger as their undergraduate careers progress. Individual universities’ approach to resource provision differs widely. Some make no commitment to ensuring that students have access to basic resources such as textbooks, therefore tacitly expecting them to pay for their own, as students were always expected to do in pre-tuition-fee times; others make ‘free’ textbook provision a selling feature in their prospectuses. The current trend is to move away from textbooks altogether and replace them with a mixture of other types of resource, including monographs, lecturer-designed content [sometimes OERs, or Open Education Resources], online learning solutions and other web-sourced materials. Students at universities that take this approach can reasonably assume they will be able to obtain the essential resources they need without any additional financial outlay on their part. However, academic library budgets are now being squeezed quite dramatically, meaning that librarians have to find ways of fulfilling everyone’s needs and save money at the same time. Most have been operating ‘e-first’ policies for years, which means they will source an electronic copy over a print one when both are available. Electronic copies allow more students to us the same resource simultaneously. provided that the library has also paid for multi-user access; but some librarians are now saying this is unaffordable, while others say they will no longer acquire backlist monographs electronically if the library already has a copy in print. Consequently, although in theory all the resources the student needs are supplied by the university, in practice availability is restricted. A further pitfall for students is that the less prescriptive the resource lists academics prepare, the more likely students are to conduct Google searches for relevant content and some of the material they find will not be authentic. (It is an increasing part of the librarian’s role to train students how to identify content they can trust.)
4. How do I afford it all?
This is, of course, a question that most students – and their parents – need to be able to answer before they enrol. Currently university fees are capped at £9,250 a year in England (£4,625 for part-time students) and the cost of living for full-time students with no dependents estimated to be between £350 and £550 per month, depending on the university and its location. Most students qualify for help, primarily in the form of a low-interest government loan. This will normally take many years to pay back – many loans will never be repaid because the student’s subsequent employment does not reach the repayment start threshold. There is no easy answer to the affordability question. A more relevant consideration may be that fees can only rise – and universities are now lobbying for ‘realistic’ rises in fees to allow them to meet their costs, some stating that £25,000 a year would be necessary to enable standards to be maintained. If delayed, university education can only become less affordable than it is now.
5. Is it worth it?
That depends …. There is more than one reason for studying for a degree. Most undergraduates, however, embark upon a degree course primarily to get the type of job that would otherwise be unavailable to them. If this aim is not achieved, then patently it has not been worth it. Even if the student is successful, has he or she received value for money; and how should this be assessed? Are degrees being ‘devalued’? Some institutions now award almost all students a First or a 2/1. Does a degree course teach the student to be a competent member of the workforce? Would the student be better off working for a more vocational qualification – e.g., an apprenticeship? And, to turn the argument around, as a society are we in danger of losing sight of the value of scholarship and learning for learning’s sake?
Higher Education is at a crossroads. Rapid changes are under way. We hope to explore some of the implications of this in future articles.
This article was written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf. It was first published on the Bookbrunch Website on 12 September 2022.