Ones to Watch and Education Guardian are thrilled to announce that the winner of our joint writing competition is Luke Braidwood.
Luke is a third-year BA Biological Sciences student at the University of Oxford. He enjoys writing, taking photos, and walking up hills in the Lake District. In the future he would like to see the world, write, do a PhD in crop sciences, and maybe even find a job.
His entry, written in answer to the question ‘With fees tripling to £9,000 a year at most universities, is it inevitable that the student will become a consumer?‘, has been published on guardian.co.uk, as part of the launch of the Blogging Students section.
It’s 9:45, I’m mildly hungover, and relying on a strong black coffee to stay awake. The dulcet tones of a greying, portly biochemistry professor rumble around a gloomy lecture hall, which is clad in oak and filled with tacky plastic chairs. We’re learning about the organization of the plant metabolic network, which is only about half as much fun as it sounds.
After the summary, which seems strangely unfamiliar, we each rummage around, pull out £30, and place it on the front desk in a heap of crumpled notes and loose change. Sam asks me to lend him some cash; he’s forgotten his wallet for the third time this month. The professor pulls out a hessian sack and starts sweeping the money (about £1800) into it, then walks outside whistling.
I get ten lectures a week, some of them from obtuse or incomprehensible lecturers, and place £300 weekly at the front of the lecture hall. There are 30 teaching weeks in a year, so pay around £9,000 for all my lectures. I think about this, look for a paracetamol in my bag, and wonder if I’m getting my money’s worth.
The protagonist (Joe) of this tale lives in a slightly different world, with £9000 tuition fees that are payable on a pay-as-you-go system. It’s like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, with education instead of appliances. In this world, Joe can stop attending the lectures on plant metabolism he finds so dreary, and so will save money on this module. Perhaps he will spend a small fraction of it on a plant metabolism textbook to help in the exams. Joe is a consumer: he only pays for what he wants, and as such the University receives detailed feedback on which topics and lecturers the student body values most. In our world, students pay the full fee at the start of each year, and turn up to all (or some) of the lectures, laboratory work, and classes that the University provides.
With fees tripling, it is inevitable that students, other than those born to very wealthy families, will think harder about whether and where to go to University, as well as what to study. Despite the Government’s hollow promises of social mobility (it’s certainly not going to increase mobility, is it?) and hypocritical insistence that you can spend any amount of money provided that it’s borrowed at a low interest, poorer students will have to ensure they can justify the expenditure. We’ve watched banks go down, and drag countries down, due to excessive borrowing, so mountainous debt isn’t appealing, regardless of the interest rate.
Making young people think harder about the value of their degree may not be a bad thing. However, the monetary value of a degree is the perception of that degree’s value by prospective employers, which may have little bearing on how well it was taught. If Oxford stopped giving lectures tomorrow (and the media didn’t notice), it would take many years for employers to realize the increased ineptitude of Oxford graduates, and start discriminating accordingly.
In contrast, even the most dynamic, useful and thrilling degree may be undersubscribed if offered by the new kid on the block, as employers don’t demand it. The problem with the fee rise is that it renders students as consumers who lack real choice. They can only pick between degrees, not within them, which both robs students of the opportunity to only pay for what benefits them most, and Universities of the chance to learn how best to teach their students.
Luke’s work has also been published by guardian.co.uk here.