Higher what?

I was living abroad with poor internet access during the debate on tuition fees a few months ago and despite the lack of information, I felt incredibly frustrated by it. Without this present soapbox outlet blog, I didn’t really get an opportunity to vent how I felt (surprising how people in Sierra Leone don’t care much about UK university fees…) and so I just mumbled a bit to myself and let it drop. But now I’m back in the UK and onto the blogging scene, a couple of recent blog posts and articles have resurrected said frustration…

It isn’t so much with the fees themselves but, more importantly, with how the debate has unfolded… What frustrates me so is that it’s almost exclusively been about the price and market potential (is that a technical term?) of higher education. And while interesting and probing arguments have been made about whether or not university courses can indeed be treated as a commodity and students as rational consumers, I feel something’s been missing.

Buying things 101

Now, as you’ve probably figured out, I’m no economist (although apparently even a parrot can be trained to sound like one, so there’s still hope!). But my wide experience as a buyer of things tells me that how much you pay for something depends on how much you value it. And how you value an item is based on why you’re buying and what you are willing to pay for.

Most people would not pay more than £5 for a burger from McDonalds, but would be happy to pay more for a burger at my local pub and might even be inclined to fork out however much on a dinner at the Fat Duck! It’s all food but they get McDonalds for convenience, not quality, pub meal for atmosphere and quality of food and spending £250+ at the Fat Duck is (I assume) about extremely good food, pristine service and exclusivity…

So, how much you spend on something is dependent on what you get from it, be it the quality of the ingredients, the surroundings, the service or the overall experience.

Education, Education, … you get the idea.

How does this translate when it comes to higher education? Well, we’ve heard a lot about how much it should (or shouldn’t) cost but little about what that money will actually buy. Is it a piece of paper with a prestigious name on it, is it good quality teaching or a great location and interesting student life?

All these things are important and inform a student’s choice as to where to apply, and universities are becoming more aware of what they need to do to attract students. Hopefully they will up their game even more to justify the hefty price tag that now comes with the ‘university experience’. However, as many have argued, students are not ‘rational consumers’ and this is not a typical market.

At the end of the day the clue as to what matters is, as ever, in the name: education.

Lest we forget, going to university is about learning. Learning about your subject, about what you want to do with your life and about yourself. And if it is about learning then it means it should also be about teaching. Yet in a lot of universities, teaching is not being prioritised. Academics are often not trained in teaching methods and the pressure is on them to publish and be widely known as that’s how the departments will get more funding (without going into detail, the fact that the Higher Education funding body relies on a ‘Research Excellence Framework’ rather than, say, a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ to determine funding of universities is telling in itself)…

Face to face time with professors and lecturers at university is generally extremely low and tutorial teaching is often subcontracted to graduate students with varying degrees of qualification and/or interest (I know because I was, and still am, one of them, though on the more interested side). To teach at primary school, you need a PGCE qualification, to teach at university you need to effectively just have spent a lot of time in a library…

Which is why I feel the debate about tuition fees missed a trick. Tuition fees are now definitely going up, and for having been to university in France where tuition fees are around £200, I don’t think them going down would necessarily be a great thing either.

But there has been little talk about what the money will be for and what students will get from it.  Will students pay more money so that their uni can get a shiny new lab or a famous professor? Or will students pay more so that they get better courses and more small-group tuition?

Will it be over-priced food in an exclusive setting or a good meal in a great atmosphere?

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