Universities are coming in for a bit of a hard time at the moment – and this week is one that many students, lecturers, parents and further education watchers might prefer to forget.
The news that the lecturers had accepted a deal on their pension arrangements – and that the strike was over – proved a little premature. The latest is that lecturers are drawing up spreadsheets of when students’ exams take place so that their strike action can cause maximum impact. Today’s students get so little “facetime” with their lecturers that you might be tempted to ask how anyone is actually supposed tell they’re on strike – but make no mistake, this will be highly disruptive.
Further, the rumblings about the apparent excessive salaries of university Vice Chancellors continues with claims that “university bosses are earning hundreds of thousands of pounds more than leaders of councils and health trusts – up to three times that of other chief executives in the same cities”.
This then, was the context in which the universities minister, Sam Gyimah, announced a new way to assess the value for money offered by individual university courses. Currently, universities are rated gold, silver or bronze at an institutional level. The ambition is that it should now be possible to rate their individual courses and compare them – the rating being based on factors such as dropout rates, destination data and earnings. There will also be a direct assessment of the quality of the teaching which is clearly highly variable.
For example, some unis offering business studies are sending graduates into jobs paying £50k. Others are sending graduates, clearly the ones who didn’t get the level or quality of tuition they might have expected, into jobs at around £17k. And, the one thing they do all share is a £50k debt!
While UNFM broadly supports anything that gives prospective students a better idea of what their very expensive further education might buy them, we also think that addressing the issue at university isn’t the right place to start. The real focus on careers must be in schools. We have to ensure that young people have a really clear, unbiased view of their non-university choices.
Schools themselves must also stop assessing themselves according to the numbers of students they send to university. If a sixth form student wants to become an accountant, there are many apprenticeship routes available that will give them the same qualification while avoiding student debt. “School produces accountants of the future” should be the measure that’s celebrated. Not “schools sends lots of students to university…”
Perhaps once the university course grading system is up and running, the same criteria could be applied to non-university options. Now, that really would be a true comparison on which students and parents could make an informed decision.
There’s also a pretty obvious flaw in the assessment on university teaching quality. Students are asked to complete surveys in which they grade their lecturers. Er…against what criteria? How will a student know if they’re being taught well or not? They have nothing with which to compare or contrast their experience. The truth will only be revealed when a graduate enters the job market only to find that employers have set a high entry bar based on a good course and well taught students. It is too late for those who had the experience of lecturers, who as it turns out, were singularly unfit to teach.
Finally, there’s also something uncomfortable about earnings being used as a proxy for “success”. Graduates entering the health or charity sectors are unlikely to earn high salaries – but that is not to say their jobs are any less “successful” than those who do something different.
Universities will soon be feeling the financial pinch as a demographic blip means there will be fewer students to fill university places. There is the associated risk that standards will start to plummet as unis struggle to attract the numbers they need to be viable. And, as they introduce inevitable cuts (perhaps to Vice Chancellors’ pay packets?), it’s unlikely that the quality of teaching is actually going to improve is it?
That’s why UNFM will be focusing on supporting careers advisors and students at schools to give everyone an informed choice – especially about the non-uni options which can be every bit as valuable as gold, silver or bronze.