Lecturers’ Strike

Farewell to the Young Ones

Now if you were an average overworked overtaxed [..] parent of a university student, I think I know how you would feel about this lecturers’ strike. I think you’d be fit to be tied. You would be chomping the carpet and firing off letters to the editor about the Spartist whingers who were prejudicing your daughter’s future.
You would be ringing up Radio Five phone-ins after midnight, and raving about how these degrees were life-defining moments, and how unthinkable it was that papers should go unmarked. You would find it incredible that the Labour government has said nothing in defence of the students. Exams are being scrubbed! Vital academic credentials are melting away! For months, years, students have been bringing themselves to the intellectual boil, and now all their efforts are going to waste.

The damage is becoming less and less reversible, and not a single Labour minister has had the guts to condemn the exam boycott, or to urge the markers to get on and mark. You might even agree that the vice-chancellors should dock the pay of the non-marking examiners, and you would certainly be right there. And yet when I made the same point, in an emollient way, on the radio the other morning, I was unprepared for the reaction.
It wasn’t the hatred that rattled me. I didn’t mind being enveloped in a scalding email blast of odium scholasticum. If you end up in politics, you must expect that politics lecturers will tell you to ‘f*** off out of it, you f***ing f***’, as one of them put it. I don’t mind being called a ‘prat’, or being told by one distinguished lecturer that he wished he had kicked me harder on the rugby field many years ago. No, the communication that affected me the most was a long and anguished analysis by an academic whom I shall call ‘Nutty’, since that was his name at the age of 13, and who is one of the kindest, gentlest and cleverest people I know.
This man is 41, teaches politics at two universities, and delivers a full-time teaching timetable. Because he is only on a part-time contract, he is never employed for more than nine months at a time. The result is that for all his late-night marking, for all the hours he spends listening, with a tired smile, to the appalling confessions of the undergraduates, this saintly man earns “wait for it “a total of £9,000 per year. There were plenty of other hard-luck stories, plenty of barbed comparisons with the wages of MPs. But it was Nutty’s case that brought it all home; and when I understood that my old friend was being paid what some journalists receive for a couple of Daily Mail columns, I saw the full seriousness of the lecturers’ position.
Yes, of course they should mark the damn papers, and yes, my friends, the vice-chancellors should hold the knout over them until they do. But if this strike serves any purpose, it should convince the irritable, apathetic parents of Middle England of the chronic underpayment of British academics. Next to comparator professions such as lawyers, journalists, doctors and, yes, MPs, academic pay has fallen by 40 per cent in the last 30 years. Even if you were unmoved by this statistic; even if you felt it right that we should pay them peanuts; even if you thought that on the whole they were a bunch of lippy, leftie fact-grubbing beardos, you should recognise that the decline in lecturers’ pay is both a symptom and a cause of the decay of the university experience “the experience of your son or daughter at university. The academic pay gap is the direct arithmetical consequence of the British university boom which has seen, in my lifetime, the enrolment of 18- to 30-year-olds rise from 4 per cent to 43 per cent of the cohort. We now have 2.3 million students, and yet the unit of resource “government cash per student “has halved in the last 20 years.
These lecturers are being asked to teach ever more students, in ever larger classes, and to accept the biological inevitability that “with 400,000 graduates as opposed to 40,000 “the average student will be less bright than in the past. They must cope with the catastrophic failures of the secondary system, so that in many universities even the brighter kids must spend the first year doing remedial maths and English. They are blizzarded with paperwork, and they have a draining sense that they never quite have the time to give proper instruction. As for the students, they have a symmetrical feeling that they are not being properly taught. The hungry sheep look up and are not fed. In the wrist-slitting phrase of George Walden, my illustrious predecessor in the office of shadow higher education spokesman, we have ‘mass cultivation on the cheap, with ever more students herded into ever-expanding institutions to graze, untutored, on ever thinner pastures’.
It was this pessimistic analysis that led some of us Tories, in the last parliament, to go for an even more pessimistic solution. In case you have forgotten the last Tory policy on higher education, it involved reducing this bloated sector by banning the so-called Mickey Mouse courses. Government was to go around universities identifying non-academic courses such as Surf Studies or Golf Course Management, and the state would then selectively eliminate them by withdrawing funding. The allegedly huge quantities of cash thereby saved would be redirected at ‘real’ students doing ‘real’ courses, and, hey presto, the universities would no longer have needed the top-up fees, which the Tory government would have forbidden them from raising.
Let us take first the practical difficulties of this scheme. Even if you thought it right that government should so infringe academic freedom as to ban certain courses, these Mickey Mouse affairs are actually quite elusive. Media Studies? It turns out that Media Studies graduates have very high rates of employment and remuneration. PlayStation Studies at Sheffield Hallam, once satirised in the tabloids? The average graduate starting salary is about £35,000. Even if we had found some neater way of cutting the numbers, and axing the dross, and even if the sums added up, the basic trouble was that we sounded crabby, negative, anti-aspirational and therefore un-Tory. It may be the collective saloon-bar wisdom that there are too many duffers wasting their time at British universities, and what we need is more ‘plumbers’, but when students and their families come to make their own choices about their own lives, the thinking is very different.
They see university as a potentially wonderful place, an experience that could be both materially and spiritually enriching. They know that employers value people with degrees. They want that framed Graduation Day photo. They want to move on and up, and they don’t want some well-heeled, university-educated politician telling them that there ought to be ‘parity of esteem’ between vocational and academic qualifications, when they know perfectly well that there isn’t, and that there hasn’t been for the last 130 years. It was odd, finally, for Tories to restrict the freedom of independent academic institutions to settle their own financial arrangements, and perverse to try to solve a funding crisis by banning access to the most obvious and equitable source of funds.
There must be a better way of improving the universities than to gerrymander their courses and to starve them of cash. Surely the trick is to get more money into universities, but to do it in such a way that the institutions are continuously obliged to raise their game, to persuade their potential students that, yes, this is the badge you need; this is the credential you want. And if the potential student makes a rational decision that he’d rather be a plumber than study film at Luton, then that is all to the good. Or he may decide that the film course is so good, and his prospects as a plumber so rosy, that it is worth incurring the debt to become a film-buff plumber. There must be a trade-off. It must depend on the university and on the course. What we need, in short, is a little bit more competition, and a little less pretence of equality between the 90 wildly differing British universities.
No one believes that all students are equally academically gifted, and no one believes that all courses or all universities are equally good. When Gordon Brown made his ludicrous intervention in the Laura Spence affair, he was at least tacitly admitting the obvious: that Oxford stands at or near the top of a hierarchy of excellence, which is a naturally occurring human structure that it is no business of government to flatten out.
Let me paint you a picture. This is not a policy; this is just the way the landscape of UK higher education could be, a fantasy idyll as painted by someone like Claude. Let us imagine that we have a new and beautiful world in which we keep all the blessings of the current university system “a high international reputation; 12 universities in the global top 100 “but we also begin to allow the universities more freedom. Let us imagine that in addition to being amply funded by the taxpayer, they were allowed to charge a bit more, and that richer students and the parents of richer students came to understand that they should pay a bit more.
In our imaginary landscape “which I stress is not a policy ” the groves of academe might be adorned with lovely new buildings bequeathed by alumni, either because the British discovered a new euergetic zeal, or because of some cunning change to the tax arrangements. Let us suppose that much of this new money was used to ensure needs-blind admission, so that there was no Jude so Obscure that he felt deterred from applying; and let us suppose that the new fee arrangements were so intelligently structured as to avoid clobbering the great mass of modestly earning Middle England. Let us imagine that, by the myriad processes of individual choice and experiment, standards started to rise, so that saloon-bar grumblings about ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses died away.
There could, of course, be casualties in this sylvan paradise, as some groves became less haunted than others. But, since this is paradise, let us assume that these struggling institutions in fact merge, or change their game, or offer cheaper, popular, vocational courses of the kind that we are told are so needed. It goes without saying that the sheep in this pastoral bliss would be happier and better fed, and they would of course be looked after by shepherds who would not dream of refusing to mark exams. There would be no national pay scales, and no pretence of equality between shepherds, but they would be so much better paid that they would not mind.
Those are the rough contours of Arcadia, Nutty, old chum. The question is how to get there.

Boris Johnson is shadow minister for higher education.

LInk to The Spectator for this week’s issue.

45 thoughts on “Lecturers’ Strike”

  1. What rot. Do you actually have a proposal to make on how to fund universities, or are you just going to talk fluff?

  2. I paid fees, I have to say, my thousands of pounds spent on my education got me treated very badly, refused the right of appeal over an errant grade that brought my classification down. The Govt has made further education a business, so like all businesses it needs to learn how to deal with customers and treat them properly. They might not get enough money, but they’re behaviour is shafting the people who do pay their wages. I was left at the end of my studies holding an honours degree, yet feeling totally let down by the system which I had paid good money for, and I had no right to complain or anything, and it cost me my chance of getting on the post grad I wanted. Needless to say, my MP was as helpful as one would expect from a cabinet minister. My paper would have been better used as toilet paper for all the help I got.

  3. I’m surprised that the Conservatives haven’t proposed cutting income tax in exchange for increases in tuition fees.

    That way, whilst universities would get more money, students would be able to pay back the loans quicker when they started work, and working parents would have more money to give or loan their offspring.

    That way, you could differentiate yourselves from Labour who have imposed fees but have not cut taxes on earning.

    You could actually make a credible appeal to students: top up fees will stay under both Conservatives and Labour but only the Conservatives will cut your income tax to help you pay off the loans.

  4. From http://www.prospects.ac.uk/cms/




    (which is the most representative of younger graduates rather than including in mature graduates with previous work experience which is what the higher “averages” do)

    ” * £17,029 (median) for full-time first degree graduates from 2004 whose destinations were known and who were in full-time employment in the UK six months after graduating, according to latest figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

    This figure comes from the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, which explores graduates’ destinations six months after graduation.”

    Certainly in my profession (IT) graduate starting salaries are now tending to be lower than they used to be 5 years ago, and many of us in IT have had somewhere between a zero and 4% rise as a cumulative total over the last 4-5 years.

    It also appears from the outside that the “professions” being used as comparitors are being chosen selectively rather than being a true comparison with all professions.

    Yes, the contractual situation is wrong in academia, and if this were a dispute over contracts being made permanent I’d be fully supportive, but this is a strike over pay asking for getting on for a 25% rise in pay over 3 years. If the contract situation were sorted out and proper career progression were to be put in place surely that would be a better solution?

  5. Interesting article. Boris appears to be putting his opposition to official Tory policy on the line. Good, good, we’ll turn him Leftie yet. Means-tested tuition fees? An intriguing concept indeed; I might actually get a REFUND if I applied to Oxford, my income being firmly in the imaginary numbers.

    We shall not mention the law of supply and demand and how it aught to relate to professor’s salaries, because in a permatemp world, it simply does not apply anymore, as the example of “Nutty” clearly demonstrates.

    I hope Pete’s degree was not in English.

  6. In the financial year 2006/07, anyone earning £18,000 p.a. will pay about £2,600 in income tax alone.

    If the Conservatives raised the tax allowance to £8,000 and then had a basic rate of tax of 18%, that would reduce income tax on £18,000 to £1,800, a saving of £800.

    Given the amount of Government waste identified by bodies such as the Tax Payers Alliance, and the incentive effect caused by the tax cut stimulating work and tax revenues, surely this could be affordable?

  7. What about automatically redirecting the income tax of new graduates to paying off the student loans? That has the benefit of maintaining the tax load so that, after the loans are paid off, there isn’t sudden tax shock on the part of the students.

  8. Slightly off track I know, but JT’s eminently sensible proposal reminded me how annoyed I was with George Osborne’s speech, as reported, in Manchester a couple of days ago. Offer tax cuts man! The moment the Tories stop being a ‘small state’ party then that’s when I stop voting for them.

  9. Slightly off topic but I guess everyone here is concerned about the future of higher eductaion and research so I don’t altogether apologise for forwarding this to you all.

    Here is URL you might like to look up


    Our next march will take place on Saturday, 3 June in Oxford. The march
    will start at 11.45am at the corner of Parks Road and Broad Street –
    please assemble at 11.30am – and should last about 90 minutes. Speeches
    will take place at Parks Road and outside the lab building site. This will
    be another major, peaceful protest in support of animal research and the
    Oxford lab, and a great chance for you to stand up for science. Please
    spread the word as widely as possible and encourage friends, colleagues
    and relatives to participate. You can download a poster here. Why not
    BYOB: Bring Your Own Banner! If you are interested in helping to steward,
    get in touch!

    We are keen to link up with supporters from outside Oxford. For
    information about travelling to Oxford for the march, or if you are
    thinking about bringing along a group of people to participate, please
    contact us for any advice you may need.

    Pro-Test looks forward to seeing you there!

  10. Boris

    Evan Harris showed up last time to give me the novel experience of respect for a Lib Dem MP. Why don’t you pdeal over from Henley for teh demo?

  11. Let get back to the strike.

    I’ve now found out that if I don’t get my results (an communicate them to my Professional Institute) by 01/09/2006 I can’t take my exams this year.

    Then funding runs out where I am working (different budgets and I won’t be qualified to get the job I am being trained for) and low and behold I become unemployed.

    Lecturers, thank you very much!

  12. I have a great deal of sympathy for my lecturers (I am currently affected by the strike)- the quality of education is directly linked to the quality of the lecturers and tutors; in the humanities there are almost no other factors. Perhaps the only serious answer to the problem is a long-term structural fix like the one Boris suggests, but surely there is a shorter-term solution as well? Something that will let everyone graduate and allow some breathing space for these problems to be solved? If there is such a thing it’ll probably just be to throw money at the problem, though.
    As Boris alludes to, in the longer term, the large American universities don’t have their advantage in state funding (though that can be significant) but in alumni donations and legacies. The sheer fact of Harvard’s mult-billion dollar endowment makes most decisions a lot easier; major U.S. universities rarely lack in buildings and high technology.
    Anyhow, Boris, I think the issue brings out the best in you, and I’m glad to hear people actually talking about it.

  13. Actually, a shocking and criminal amount of that endowment is diverted into sports programs. It’s much the same as in k-12 schooling; the US spends more per student than virtually any other nation, but when you separate out sports spending from academic spending they drop to something like twentieth or lower in academic spending. Still, they do have nice buildings. The Ivan Boesky Hall in Cambridge is very nice.

  14. I have sympathy for Boris’s point and think it’s well put but I have to agree with Pete, that was pretty much my experience too. I knew a lecturer well enough to know his earnings and it was more than twice Nutty’s paltry sum. It’s all to do with contract I suppose but in academia it’s not fair to say that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys as you obviously don’t.

    A sticky fact is that a brilliant man is not necesarily a good teacher. And the old-boys network is king in these places, even when handing out degrees.

    I don’t agree with lecturers refusing to mark exams to make a point, they could do it some other way as has been pointed out by Boris. But to address another BJ point, perhaps the fees and debt now associated with HE actually does make students think twice about studying Mickey Mouse degrees? I think they have a degree in Ghost Studies at Coventry now! And nursing shouldn’t be a degree, that’s a contradiction in terms. I think perhaps this controversy will at least cause a long overdue shake up of the whole system.

    I also don’t agree with the Israel issue – I have a friend whose a lecturer in Israel. He has a home and family and you can’t just dissolve that arrangement at the drop of a hat to suit some political agenda. Perhaps Boris has a point that his friend DOES need to fund a home and family like any other man, but the fudge of part-time or short-term contracts isn’t restricted to academia.

    Jack, this is your patch, what say you?

    (and forgive my delivery, I’m suffering this morning

  15. I don’t understand how you can say nursing shouldn’t be a degree. Nurses aren’t just orderlies; they do a great many technical medical tasks and carry out the majority of procedures on patients. When I was being treated for cancer it was the nurses who administered the chemo, which is not an untechnical process. And anyone who’s worked behind the scenes of a hospital can tell you how many times nurses have given doctors insight into patient problems, by putting their experience with the patient together with their medical knowledge. Let’s give them their due: it’s a highly technical, vastly underrated and extraordinarily stressful occupation.

  16. See? that’s the problem right there – if there isn’t a degree for it it’s not worth doing. Wrong! I’m not demeaning nursing by saying it shouldn’t be a degree but that’s your assumption and I don’t think you’re alone. A degree is for academic study and nursing is for the hands on care of patients (I’m not saying there’s no study involved, just as there is some study in plumbing or car maintenace). Or should I say nursing SHOULD be for the hands-on care of patients rather than pill-popping and needle pushing. The trouble with a degree in nursing is that they come out thinking they are above changing a bed pan. If you are training people to be pseudo doctors you should think up another name, ‘nurse’ means to nourish, to care for, not to ignore if there’s no chemicals or machinery involved, leaving the nursing for lesser mortals, without degrees

  17. sorry, ‘lesser mortals’ should have been in quotes as that was my point, that the assumption is that without a degree, that’s what you or your job is and it isn’t.

    Oh dear, I think I might go back to bed!

  18. I think the occupation to which you are referring is “orderly,” not nurse. Many human lives have been saved by the knowledge that nurses have picked up in classes. They need those classes, on a purely practical level. And you, as a human being who may sometime be in their care, need them to have those classes. Just ask them.

  19. jaq

    I think you are right about nursing degrees as an example of a wider problem. People go into all sorts of jobs, careers, professions and the best thing is if everyone finds the one they are most suited to in terms of ability and of getting some sort of job satisfaction. They all need various types of training and education. We can call the certificates degrees if people want but there is no a priori reason why every course of study should take 3 years and have roughly the same teaching and assessment regime. There may be some snob value in getting a gong from a university rather than a college but my most interesting times in education were when I was teaching A-level and OND. Why don’t I go back? I would probably lose money but also since they screwed up the FE sector it wouldn’t be the same. No more meat 3 for me!

    It’s this dippy, chippy egalitarianism that is really the problem. A 2.1 degree in Computing from Cambridge University indicates a much higher level of foundational understanding of the subject than a 2.1 in computing from my estemmed establishment. So am I a crap teacher with crap students working for crap degrees? You’ll have to ask the punters about the first bit but our courses are aimed at people who wish to become competent computer professionals working in programming and software engineering generally. A number of very talented people also pass through and move into research positions. The level to which we go is sufficient to help people respond to the changes they will see over their working lives. If we only did training they would have to keep coming back. Since we provide education then they have some decent conceptual apparatus to deal with the new and unexpected. (I haven’t been on a course to do with computing since my last degree but I manage to keep up because I went on a good course). So the point is that our degree is very different from that at Cambridge and you need to be smarter than our average punter to do the degree at Cambridge. Our degree is better for our punters than the Cambridge one and theirs is better than ours for their punters. Theirs is more cerebral no b***** question!

    The difference between degrees can be taken to the difference between types of courses and qualifications. One of my son’s best mates is a joinery apprentice. They went to the same primary school and heve been friends since then. His apprenticeship has been the best thing careerwise that has happened to him. The best route for my son appears to be A-levels and a degree (after an extended gap year playing guitar apparently but never mind). Both are fortunate to have found roughly the right course.

    The ironic thing is that all this egalitarianism has, by superficially covering differences, made them more divisive than ever! When we get people pushed through to university who shouldn’t be there because it is not right for them then they get unhappy. The same is beginning to happen with A levels.

    I could go on but I’ve been ordered to get supplies in.

  20. Supplies? Make mine a pint of Theakstons Old Peculiar will you Jack? I haven’t had one of those for the longest time (and not likely to get one either)

    Thanks for putting my point so eloquently Jack, I knew I could rely on you and agree totally – you see my sister isn’t an academic and didn’t go into HE. She has nearly always earned more than me and is extremely bright (good looking, socially adept and generally kicks ass like you wouldn’t believe, I feel like Peter Hitchens!) I wouldn’t dream of saying she is a lesser person because she isn’t and her job is no less worthwhile than mine was, in fact, hers has probably got the edge. She would be the first to tell you that she is not an academic but she is no less intelligent (well, her politics are completely opposite to mine and I haven’t asked her about the war in Iraq as Hay festival is nearly over). I completely agree about the worth of apprenticeships and think nursing, by it’s very nature, is more suited to on-the-job study, with a suitable classroom nearby, rather than being fitted into the structure of a degree. I don’t think it suits. The mechanics that make/mend the car you drive or the aeroplane you travel in couldn’t be more important to your life when making that journey, but their study is better as a studying apprentice not least because they can feel the things they are fixing and gain knowledge from the experienced people they rub shoulders with, you can’t do that much in a classroom. As a mathematician, you can find all you need in books, it is completely suited to academic study as is the classics as they’re all dead. The silly degree course at Cov was in ‘Ghostbusting’ bytheway. You’ll be needing a degree to be a wife next. Sorry, matrimonial engineer. (another bugbear, everyone’s an engineer)

    Oh, talking of the gorgeous Peter Perfect, have you seen his article in the MoS today in Review? (see how I deftly steered the point back to freedom of speech, well, near enough) It’s about some Islamic college called ‘Darul Uloom’ in India. I thought the article was very interesting, particularly because it was written by him (looking like a grown-up Rick Astley). Well written of course but slightly ironic in the circumstances? Is ironic too aggressive? Check it out if you can Jack.

    Is it worth mentioning that PH wasn’t wearing a tie?!! In this day and age I think it should be front page news

  21. Changing the subject for a mo – PH is not allowing my comments on his blog AGAIN, so permit me to comment here:

    He’s whinging about the Americanisation of our language. My comment was that I would gladly be nostalgic about Watch with Mother, Trumpton and Camberwick Green if only I wasn’t trying so hard to press button ‘B’ and get my money back. I thought this comment was a gift! I suppose sometimes you just have to spell things out. In other words, americanisation is now starting with the very VERY young because most people have sky or cable TV and the best chil;drens TV progs are American, it’s a fact. British progs try to hard to be funny and hip and trendy and end up showing bad behaviour so, any caring parent (I can feel PH’s argument just waiting in the wings, if only he’d make it) chooses the american progs, like Dora the Explorer. American TV can actually be very VERY good and their learning and outreach projects are inspirational and generally fantastic. But my son now insists we put ‘gas’ in the car.

    I think PH (I always think of a pink hippo when I write that) has a point in that american TV progs for adults has infiltrated our language and, having been to the US, I firmly believe they have phrases that just suit, or are nice to use. I agree that sometimes it’s annoying and that actually, news media was probably the first to bastardise our language in an effort to appear ‘cool’ or should I say more exotic and interesting. But I dislike ‘toilet’ when it should be lavatory – even the Oxford dictionary defines ‘lavatory’ as ‘toilet’. I always thought one completed one’s toilet not visited it. Well, what do I know, our language has been morphing for bleems, yonks, since Noah’s dog died and other colloquialisms, but I think having a ‘comfort break’ or visiting ‘the rest room’ is a rather nice way of putting it. I’m not bothered about being in the street or on the street, both make sense, but I admit that ‘can I get a skinny latte?’ when you’re stood in a coffee shop, giving your order, does grate.

    So does freedom of speech extend to freedom of expression? I’m not sure it does because there is a need for clarity and social graces, it’s what oils societies wheels. Hmn, Boris doesn’t come out with tons of Americanisms, why’s that do you think?

    Why’s that Boris? If PH won’t make the point, will you?

  22. Boris may have been born there but I’m guessing he would say that he’s a true blue Brit, an Englishman through and through. As Ian Hislop would say he’s not welsh and Cliff Richard would say he’s not Indian.

    Peter Hitchens was born in Malta but I’m sure he’d say he’s not a malteser. Ok I’m just being silly.

  23. jaq

    Funnily enough TOP is a frequent item in my shopping trolley. I only go down to get more Vim as ordered but just go into consumer mode when I get to Tesco that great Temple of Mammon.

  24. At last – Boris makes the point about how contracts can be p/time, poorly paid and still mean the lecturers have a huge number of students to teach.

    And no, it isn’t about rubbish lecturers getting rubbish posts; it is often about personal cirumstances – e.g. maternity breaks, lack of geographic mobility etc.

    There are scanty jobs in my area of specialism. Yet student numbers are overwhelming. We need to do something NOW.

    1. I would like the union to be fighting this wider problem and also the bifurcation of teaching and research posts,that, within such a hierarchial system, means that crossing from a teaching post into a research post is problematic.

    2. Students – look you’re not full consumers. You don’t pay until after graduation. I can’t pop down to my bank and get a loan and say, ‘hey can I pay it back when I am earning money.’ If you want a market, then pay as you go! Youc an always return your grade, then, if you don’t like it. Altertatively, let’s review what education is for in its social dimmension and fund it adequately.

    3. Value – the exchange value of a degree might be the same as that of a NVQ in plumbing, but the cultural capital attached to it just isn’t. If we valued trades as much as professions (which we should) then I’d agree with Boris; but we just don’t do we?

  25. No we don’t we just make EVERYTHING a degree course which in the end confuses the issue and devalues EVERYTHING. We also change courses to suit funding methods (ie. overseas students) which can also devalue the worth of the course.

    Jack, it’s just not the same from Tesco. Call me fussy but from a little pub in Robin Hoods Bay for example, where getting home is interesting, is much more fun.

    raincoaster – I’m sure Ph would be the first to agree with you. Should journalists, who like to moralise and tell us how to live, be held to the same scrutiny as politicians do you think

  26. sm

    About your second point – the law entitles us to funding that we can take to any institution that will accept us. No we are not full ‘consumers’ as defined in consumer law – and do not enjoy consumer rights as such – if we did enjoy these rights every university would be bombarded with County Court claims for breach of contract by now.

    However we are ‘customers’ as any quality management lecturer worth his salt will tell you. Being customers means that we will naturally have expectations based to some extent on the marketing of the institution we choose to attend. Every HE institution I’ve attended as a student – three of them to be precise – bigs themselves up as you would expect a poorly managed home improvements company to do so.

    Do you wonder why we are disappointed? We were all promised second to none education, now we have had a year with no feedback about grades and no certainty as to what on Earth is going to happen with the exams we sat.

  27. Two points and an observation, the latter first:

    Well done for stating clearly there are and should be differentials in HE – and that course selection shud be left to students. However without at least some hard facts about funding then this is going nowhere, so trust there will be a follow-up article with some basic numbers?

    It seems unlikely that we can easily shift from the current state funding and the mindset that goes with it, to a more American-style benefactor-based one. Moreoever one can envisage the top 10 UK Univs getting significant sums from benefactors but the majority?

    Why should ‘richer students and the parents of richer students’ pay more for the same thing as other students/parents (after all they have usually paid more taxes in the first place). Sounds suspiciously like a stealth tax?

    I listened to a report on Radio 5 last night about admission to Veterinary College. A farmer’s daughter from a grammar school (state I think) had been told that even with 4 x ‘A’ levels she would not get entry, despite it seemed very good non-academic qualifications and strong commitment. However children from ‘less priviledged’ backgrounds could get in with 3 x Bs or even 3 x Cs if they’d done a summer course. The head of the College admitted they had recently adopted a deliberate policy to broaden the social catchment, and hence the differing policies (although did not comment on specific cases). So it seems that some A levels are better than others … ?

    Finally whatever new policy comes out, transition plans must be clearly thought through to avoid further chaos in education.

  28. Steven L

    Well, would you be prepared to pay up front or at commercial rates of interest from a private lender to become a consumer?

    Quality management – hmmn, in education the quality also depends upon staff:student rations; at the moment they are woeful. This, to me, is the crux of the problem – indeed, ask someone who IS a quality manager about this issue.

    If you are seduced by marketing then welcome to capitalism – this is how it is helped to prosper! There’s nothing “natural” about your expectations – they are shaped by the money-market. And remember, businesses go bust and customers lose money every day.

    You, however, will eventually get the cultural capital you crave.

    I am sorry the students are affected, but look closely at how HE has been bungled and you may find some answers.

  29. Steven_L repeated the myth that students are customers.

    There’s an element in which they are of course (paying for a service), but there are many ways in which the normal customer relationship does not work in the university world.

    Students are not just buying a degree. They may not get a degree at all if they don’t work hard enough, or even if they’re not bright enough. Where else does a customer buy something which they may not get?

    The quality (that is, classification) of their degree depends as much on their ability and commitment as on the ‘services’ provided by the university.

    Students agree to abide by the rules of the university, they become subject – where necessary – to the disciplinary procedures of the university.

    I’m sure others can think of ways in which this is far from a straightforward customer situation.

  30. On the customer issue…

    The adage that the customer is always right, I think would not apply! We spend quite a bit of time pointing out where students get it wrong (on degrees where there are things to get wrong – media studies is probably an ideal customer based subject) and, in an elitist way of course, how they can get it right. Regretfully I must insist that 2+2 = 4 all the time.

    Students pay for the right to earn a degree not for a degree but a lot of students disagree with that.

    Student ‘consumables’ include being taught and told to do things – it’s just like being at work but you pay for the privilege to do so. The more work you do the better value for money!

    It takes two to tango! If a student is not going to engage then they won’t learn. How many times have I been asked “What am I meant to do?”, to which I answer “Have you read the assignment sheet?” to which the answer is often “No”. The idea that you might need to read something once and maybe a few times strikes some as not what the customer ordered. Anything worth studying at any level involves problem solving. Wussies who keel over at the first insult to their grey cells should really not be allowed out without their mummies.

    Are all students like this? No, only a very small minority but somehow they stick in one’s mind beacuse there is always the worry of the inclusivity police.

    Students who have done serious work before college get on with it and do well.

    With a bit of luck it looks as if it will be over soon as the employers seem to have been in contact with reality.

  31. Yes that’s it – it takes two to tango. It’s a contract and students earn the right to gain a degree by providing the ‘right’ answers GIVEN THAT they have the appropriate teaching. But trying to answer questions that are in themselves flawed or lecturers screwing up scheduling of courses because they can’t sort out their own admin or have some personal agenda against the student, or are just sexist can cause the student insurmountable problems. I suppose it’s like buying a boat. If the boat is sound you can row yourself, it’s up to you to reach the other side. But if the boat is unsound, it doesn’t matter how hard you row you are going to sink

  32. jaq

    Our courses run as scheduled.

    We don’t have agendas against students

    I don’t believe we are sexist to that extent.

    Some other university maybe but we do our best and are aware that punters pay.

  33. I’m sure that’s true Jack, but there’s good and bad in everything, not everyone is you. At Uni I saw some pretty startling favouritism, from allowing a drug ridden student who’d done no work forward to the next year to discriminating against a woman for Phd study who had far more right in every respect to get the post. I suppose whilst we can’t completely eradicate peoples prejudices, I agree with a previous poster, that ‘positive’ discrimination (places gained on a vetinary course) is just as repellent. Perhaps one must deal in generalities and make sure that ‘dancer’ who tango’s keeps up their end of the bargain. But I couldn’t help noticing, from a students point of view, that holding established lecturers to account is a bit like trying to sue the government

  34. In considering that previous post, does this now mean, I wonder, that if I moved mountains to get my son into private school, I would actually be doing him a disservice in terms of his future education prospects?

  35. I think some of you are missing the point.

    It is not the institution that is entitled to the funding, the individual is entitled to take his or her funding to the institution that can offer the opportunity that the individual is willing to give up three or more years of their time for.

    If institutions cannot compete effectively with their competition they will attract less individuals and less funding. Institutions that over-exaggerate the opportunities they are offering will dissappoint more individuals and will get a bad reputation.

    It is simple quality management theory. Those institutions who are going as far as refusing to even set exam papers will be doing untold damage to their reputations. It’s not so bad for the lecturers who can move on if needs be, but it is the local communities that suffer in the long run surely?

  36. I don’t think that’s the point Steven, as uni’s do change their courses to attract more overseas students as I stated. The courses HAVE changed I’ve seen it happen. One course changed to entirely coursework based assesment for students who had no grasp of English, though it was taught in English. The end result, though it would be denied, is that the overseas students bought their degree, largely because they couldn’t be allowed to fail en mass.

    This had no impact on the local community.

  37. More student = more funding = more local jobs = more money in the local economy.

    That was the point Jaq, I wasn’t talking about foreign students, but the same theories of supply and demand apply. The more freedom HE is afforded the more these market forces will apply.

  38. jaq

    You are quite right about holding lecturers to account if they are consistently not up to the job. In FE we worked with a bloke who was a disaster. It was in his, our and students interests when we finally got rid of him after three (!) years.

    You may think that a strange comment from a trade unionist but I recall discussing the issue with friends in the Transport and General Workers Union. They cited the example of bus drivers who consistently turn up late did not get backing from the union because (a) they weren’t pulling their weight and (b) for the union to object to this would be to make it more difficult for reasonable issues to be raised.

  39. It appears the marking boycott is now at an end with the UCU now reaching an agreement with employers, which is a massive relief to students I can tell you!!

    Sm stated that apparently we students are not consumers and allegedly we don’t pay until after graduation. That maybe true for the new set of students about to come through, but I certainly paid upfront each year!! I didn’t fund my fees with a student loan and I know many students (particularly overseas, who have to pay a lot more in than home students) didn’t either. So I completely reject the claim that we are not “consumers” or “customers.” Indeed (and I not completely sure on the legal status) but students can sue their university for breach of contract and/or false adverting under the Trade descriptions act. I’m aware of one such case.

    Jojo – I think the normal customer relationship does apply. I understand your reasoning that a student may not necessarily achieve the grade they desired or a degree classification at all, however that does not detract from fact that students are clearly paying for a service. If you take buying a holiday package for example, you can’t complain about having a poor holiday to the travel agent (or even not having one) if you don’t make the effort to travel to the airport or (once there) make an effort to do the things you wanted. By the same token universities (like the travel companies) are providing a service which the consumer paid for, and it’s up to the individual (not the service provider in either example) to make the most of it. I agree with Jack’s point “Students pay for the right to earn a degree not for a degree” but I would add they also pay for the right to receive a certain level and quality of service.

    I can relate to jaq point. At my uni we had a situation where some students were left with no dissertation guidance (only two months into the first term) because a lecturer had left and was never replaced. We had exam questions with obvious grammatical and spelling mistakes. Exams were discounted because the university failed to follow its own examination procedures. Overcrowded lecture theatres, to the point of which students were told to leave for safety reasons. Tutorials consisting ONLY of student presentations in some subjects. Contradictory information issued regarding revision for exams and no feedback for many months due to the marking boycott. That’s not the service I paid for!!

    My view is that lecturers pay should be set locally. Obviously attracting staff in some areas will be harder than others and the pay should reflect this. It ludicrous to put all lecturers on the same pay system across the whole country and across all subjects. I don’t think this new pay agreement will benefit students. What is needed is less student to lecturer ratios and I can’t see how this will help particularly since now there will be less money in the pot. If you are to believe research by many academics; money doesn’t act as much of a motivator anyway and hence I can’t see lecturers performing any better as a result of improved pay. I think more funding for university needs to come from the private sector, after all they are ones who wanting highly trained graduates to work for them.

  40. James, your interpretation of the Trade Descriptions Act is very wrong indeed. You cannot sue anyone under the Trade Descriptions Act let alone a University (which falls outside the definition of ‘trade or business’ incedently).

    But I agree with your point on local pay.

  41. James: the majority of students get loans to live on, paid for by the taxpayer until repayment at low interest. In this sense, the effects of the money-market are not the same as in purely commercial enterprises where making a profit is the primary motive.

    Perhaps, as you say, the profit-making businesses that want graduates should cough up? But, of course that potentially revokes the wider social dimmension of education, prioritising exchange-value over social use: there would be consequences for the type of ‘service’ given to students.

    The use of the term customer has crept into the public sector and has taken hold; perhaps you like it? But at what point do you draw the line? Is a child on the Social Services Protection Register really a customer? Apparently so.

    The student as a customer shifts the meaning of education quite dramatically, too. A student could still expect a good education without those expectations being based on a word that bounds out the more productive questions about what education is for, and how quality in terms of learning, rather than grade-getting is achieved. Think it through in terms of how the discursive interpellates us.

    I am not sure what you mean by perfomance? Lecturers are measured on performance – the research that brings in funding. For many academics that research is crammed in during vacation time or at weekends.

    However, I do agree with your point about staff:student ratios. This, in my experience, is endemic in an overloaded HE system. I believe students should receive a decent education and, for me, there is a huge problem of crowded lectures and lack of proper contact time.

    Good luck with your graduation.

  42. Just a further comment on quality of service. My university used to be a poly and we used to have HMIs (Her Majesty’s Inpsectors) just like FE and school. These were far superior to the current system of quality assurance. They would observe classes and make critical and useful comments. Quality assurance now is about box ticking and a capable bureaycrat knows how to deliver on thst front! We have a scheme for peer observation which works well enough amongst reasonable people but even so it comes better from an outsider.

    Boris raise the standard of bring back the HMIs!

  43. Boris,

    Have you read the proposal for a way of having Universities rewarded for being goood and have increased income without having tuition fees that was reported in the Times Higher a while a go?

    I think it’s at http://www.policyinstitute.info

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