Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Student Experience

An overheard conversation earlier this week – on the topic of their own frugality when a student (many years previously) and the spendthriftery of today's students – gives me pause for thought. 

It seems it was ever thus. The picture is Undergraduates training pointers in a college room by Sir David Wilkie RA, which dates from the early years of the nineteenth century, and clearly does not show students hard at work amidst scenes of poverty.

It’s easy (and fun) to get moralistic about this, but there’s a serious point for universities. In a market, factors other than the programme of study will become relevant. Some, such as employment prospects, are understandable, particularly with higher fees and a tough economy. Others are perhaps less laudable – see, for example, Paul Greatrix's post on the campus facilities arms race.

This creates genuine problems for universities.  Firstly, campus facilities all come with costs, and universities will need to recoup these. This means fees for usage (and noting that the competition authorities will not necessarily always recognise the difference between a tuition fee and a fee for an ancillary service provided as part of the same 'student experience' package) and immediately there are questions of equity between students on campus.

Secondly, the investment has an opportunity cost. A 3G sports pitch can’t occupy the same space as a teaching building; bigger rooms in a hall will give you fewer students, per square metre, who can live in it. I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point.

Thirdly, and this might in the long run be the really big issue, is the financing itself. Many universities have gone into partnership for the provision of halls, with a third party providing capital in return for revenue over the years. There's no question that this can help provide good hall places. But if quality/price/location of halls are seen by students as being an integral part of the academic experience, should universities really be surrendering control?

It all comes back to the question of what the student experience is. For some students the 'traditional' model of leaving home at 18 and spending three years full time in study will continue to be the norm; for others, part-time study, or study after a few years in work, or study at a lower-cost alternative provider, will make sense.

This is fine for individuals, but this is also a social justice question. Is going to university really about intelligence and capability, or is it about the transmission of common culture and wealth from one generation to the next? If you need money (and more than comes through SLC funding alone) to get the most out of the best universities, isn't this necessarily regressive? As long as universities feel obliged to up the ante on facilities, we'll be locked into a model of which confuses the academic and non-academic student experiences. And I'm not sure that this is a good thing.

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