Students as consumers- the great university debate

First published at http://www.pluto-online.com/?p=1768

The debate is rumbling on about where we go on funding for university.

The NUS has been protesting in London against removing the cap on top-up fees. But what is really at issue here?

In these hard economic times, we need, and need to be world-class graduates that can compete in the global markets and excel in our given fields.

China, India, Brazil and Russia, the growing economies, have seen their chance to shine here, and are understandably grasping it with both hands.

A lecturer comments on an article on the Independent Online that many UK students (I’d have preferred it if he’d made it clear that it wasn’t all) are wasting their degrees:

“Because they are constantly told that they are ‘customers’, students increasingly assume that getting a degree is simply about being spoon-fed, and taught to the test, in return for paying their 3,000.

“There is alarmingly little appreciation that learning/studying is an interactive, two-way process.

“The same mindset also means that a growing number of students are choosing whether or not to turn up for (compulsory) classes, on the grounds that ‘If I don’t attend lectures or seminars, it’s my money I’m wasting, so why should you care? Besides, you can’t afford to kick me off the course, because you need my fees!’”

He continued: “Many students today have an alarming inability or unwillingness to think independently or engage intellectually. They expect everything to be done for them (consumer ‘rights’, naturally), and many of them seem far more interested in spending their days and nights text-messaging or playing on their Facebook sites than reading books.”

Can you say it doesn’t sound a little familiar? We’re a pretty despondent group by all accounts. Many are scraping through, blowing their loans and not ending up in a career worth the money.

However they decide to solve the funding issue- they might consider removing the cap and allow better universities to charge more, a progressive tax or a sort of tax after education- are universities producing the high-quality graduates necessary for the future, to improve on a knowledge-based economy?

In January this year, the BBC wrote that intake to UK universities is at “an all-time high. It [the government] wants more than half of young people to go on to higher education.

However, they went on to say that: “The number of UK students at UK universities fell from 1.97 million in 2007 to 1.96 million last year.” The drop is more than likely a funding issue than a realization that university might be a waste of time. Plus, what are the other options?

Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities still out-perform, as always. And these graduates are apparently getting twice as much contact time for their money. But would allowing these institutions to charge more yet again price some out of education?

Universities are depending upon international students for their income, some charging almost seven times what the natives are asked for, is this really fair? And it seems part-time students are getting a raw deal. But is doing a degree on that basis more or less useful? It is obviously necessary for some learners but is six years too long to get something that might ultimately not bag you your ideal career?

Current undergrads have been perpetual guinea pigs of New Labour. Third years will have been half way through primary school when Tony and his cronies got their optimistic but misguided mitts on our futures. Coming to the end of its natural life, we might have been able to breathe a sigh of relief- the end of meddling and patching-up. But no, the mess could take years to clear up. Because what is the answer?

And what of the tutor’s comments? Is many student’s treatment of their degrees another example of ‘rights without responsibility’? Everyone has the right to go, but what responsibility comes with it?

University was at one time only for the privileged, why are we all not more grateful of the privilege we have been given?

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