University. Finally a time of critical thinking, training for your future career and coming out with enough knowledge to confidently acquire a job… or rather that is the plan.
But what if that doesn’t happen? When the £9,000 a year tuition fee, plus the expense of living costs rear their ugly heads and the invoice is sent in the post asking for loan repayment, do you think: was it really worth the money?
Universities are a business and the core to every business is to make money. Profitably. Universities are no different. A simple example is how a staggering nine out of ten universities have opted to charge the highest tuition rate of £9,000, according to Times Higher Education. The option to charge less is there, but why would they when they can charge the most?
Universities are rarely held accountable for their failings. This has to change. I am not alone in these views. Complaints from students against universities to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) have been rising rapidly over the years to a tipping point in 2012, coincidentally receiving 2,012 complaints. In order to make a complaint to the OIA, you first have to exhaust the means within the university institution which therefore makes these figures more potent as these should be seen as a students last resort. More and more students are increasingly becoming disappointed in their universities.
At this point I would like to affirm this is not an article from a graduate who did not do well and therefore would like to blame the academic instituition for my failure. Without reason of grandeur but certification, I graduated with First Class Honours, achieved some great milestones including producing and directing two short documentaries and in my second year, took on the role of consultant producer for IBC Rising Stars, a job I continued after I graduated.
I did well at uni and I am proud of this fact. Despite this, my university could and should have been better, and on no account bar a select few, do I feel I owe my successes to this institution. I believe on the whole that they, along with many other universities, are failing their students.
So, let’s replace the university building with a (very large) shop. You are a customer who walks into the shop, buys something and walks out again. The product you buy works OK, but not as advertised. Perhaps the battery doesn’t last as long as it should, the colour is different to what the packaging suggests or there’s a part missing.
As a customer, dissatisfied with the product, you would take it back for a refund or exchange – an annoyance but ultimately satisfied and not much is lost. Now let’s take away the facade of the shop and use this analogy for university. Only, in order to know if the product works, you have to give up three years of your life, a vast amount of money and unless you’re planning on a life of education – you may only get one shot at this.
There are no refunds for university – You cannot get your time back, you very rarely can get your money back and besides, how do you measure dissatisfaction with your education? “Hi Mr University, I’ve only received 60% of knowledge, please may I get 40% of my fees and time back?” It just doesn’t work. So you really only get the one chance to make your life the way you want it.
“I chose to drop out of my uni course because there was very little content and I was being taught very basic things… My head lecturer never had anything to say when I asked him for feedback. If I could claim the money back, I would.”
Unfortunately, it appears universities may not think this way. In my three year TV Production degree, I oddly enough spent a lot of my time trying to learn, although I should emphasise trying. It is no secret that competition for jobs after you graduate are higher than ever, so the best way to get ahead is to do more, learn more and achieve more. Grab experiences, find opportunities and make the most of what’s there at your feet. I then started getting frustrated with how my enthusiasm for learning and wanting to do the best I could was not met by likeminded lecturers who wish to help their students achieve their goals. It was a constant fight to get any sort of training, instruction or even hear stories from our lecturers of their personal experiences that may help us in our future. It seemed that once they had acquired the quota to fill the year of young eager students, their job was done. As a matter of fact, the most engaged I saw my lecturers was when they were showing new recruits around our facilities and more than once using current students’ successes as case studies for how the university prepared the next generation of professionals. In fact, at one point my gaining the role of consultant producer for IBC was used as an example, despite my lecturers not even knowing what IBC was.
As I said, a select few lecturers at my university are worth their weight in gold when it came to teaching students, but that may only account for 10% of the uni experience I and my peers received. Another great positive was the use of equipment and most importantly broadcast equipment and space. Despite these positives, unfortunately more times than not, my lecturers had nothing useful to add.
“I badgered my tutors constantly… People think they’re busy but they should always be able to carve out time to help you on a one to one basis.”
Frank’s account isn’t unusual. Where information should be given freely and easily, it quite often is not. As students, we get it, you’re busy, you have a lot of other students to get around but if you can’t take the job of trying to better the lives of the next generation, then don’t do it. On one occasion I remember asking a lecturer: “I’m looking to enter some film festivals but I don’t really know anything about it, could you give me some advice?”. The advice I received was to Google it. This is a course that now costs £9,000 a year and what should have been insightful advice, turned out to be a referral to a free search engine.
Reminder: This isn’t about writing a grievance about universities. There are some great universities, great courses and great lecturers. This is about highlighting what is expected and the expectations met or at least managed.
In my second year, the lack of skills we were receiving got too much for our year and the annual meeting held by the tutors asking for two representatives saw over 40 students turn up in protest to voice how shocking the course was compared to what was advertised. The reply was not confident. Our tutors said they appreciated the feedback but we were told any implementations would only benefit new students in the future. For our feedback, passion and accountability: we were branded a difficult year.
My work with Rising Stars gave me particular interest in what my peers were feeling they were missing in their educational and professional lives and it wasn’t good. Within my university and other universities with similar courses it was becoming apparent this view was seen across the board. So much so that an organisation in the form of ITTP (Institute for Training in Television Production) was established earlier this year to help articulate this problem.
So what’s the solution?
Accountability, but in a way that we have not seen yet. As mentioned, there are organisations like Creative Skillset or even the universities’ own student boards that hold the universities to account but I can sit here writing confidently that it doesn’t work. Have Skillset sat through three years of each course and decided at the end of this time they feel they’ve learnt something from it? No.
The student boards are unfortunately a failing of the system: students having a voice only to be ignored somewhat by the university who thinks they have a better idea because of course, they’re only students after all, what do they know?
This next generation accountability needs to be a movement. Not a protest, not aggressive or contentious: it needs to be every student’s frame of mind. Going into university is buying a product. If that product does not deliver, you need to call for attention. It would be unthinkable to spend £27,000 on a car, plus the expenses of keeping it running for three years only to find out it doesn’t do half the things you expected it to do. Trading standards would be called in, refunds would be made – people would not stand for it.
So I implore everyone reading this: change your mindset. University is not an organisation like school or college. University is a product you have bought. A product that should work. If that product does not work as advertised, call for change. It’s time for accountability.