Up the revolution

2nd May 2014 at 01:00

I've been waiting a while now for increased university fees to spark a revolution. There has been no explosion yet, but research recently published by the Sutton Trust provides another stick of dynamite. The report calculates that today's students will be paying off their loans into their fifties, with even middle-income earners still making repayments of pound;2,000 a year by then.

I have two daughters at university. The elder is on the old fee system and will leave with tuition and living-cost debts of pound;24,000; the younger will have debts of pound;44,000. Allowing for interest and inflation, the Sutton Trust estimates that students like her will repay a whopping pound;66,000.

Why aren't they screaming? Well, if they want the rite of passage that is university then they have no choice. And teenagers do not worry too much about what is going to happen in the impossibly distant world of their fifties.

I would see it from that point of view, too, if only I thought students were getting value for money.

My younger daughter is in her first year of a history degree at a Russell Group university. The first two terms are 12 weeks each; she has seven hours of lectures and tutorials a week. The third term is just six weeks with one lecture a week; the rest of the time she is expected to revise for end-of-year exams. So, that makes 174 hours of contact time in the year.

And my daughter has to write 15 essays or assignments a year. Let's be generous and allow her lecturer an hour to mark each - that's another 15 hours.

The university is thus charging pound;9,000 for 189 hours of teaching time, making a princely charge of pound;47.62 per hour.

It's not even as if the quality of teaching is that good. Some of my daughter's essays were marked and returned within two weeks, but the majority took four. Any schoolteacher who took that long over marking would be well along the capability route. Neither would any headteacher or many parents tolerate the dull rehashing of the same old lecture notes year in, year out.

So I ask again: why aren't students at the barricades?

Universities claim they cannot balance the books even at the current level of fees. My guess is that humanities students are massively subsidising more expensive courses such as science and engineering.

In this climate of austerity, I can't see the next government reducing fees, so let's at least push for better value for money through greater transparency. Let's make universities publish contact hours per course and student feedback on each lecturer. Let's make them introduce more rigour, so that a first-class degree is of a comparable standard whatever the course or institution. Let's expose universities to the same accountabilities that we have in schools. League tables and Ofsted seem a good starting point.

We want our students to go to university, so let's use our power as consumers of an expensive product to make our universities the best in the world. And if that doesn't happen, let's start a revolution.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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