The Modern University: A Centre of Learning or a Capitalist Venture?

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Throughout my high school years, University (capital U, of course) was spoken of as a place barely discernible in the distant future, a place where you might go to if you apply yourself, work hard, if you get the grades. At the mention of the word, teachers’ eyes would stare into space and tongues would wag about the ‘good old days’. The skimping and saving, the long evenings spent at a lonely desk, new acquaintances both in human form and alcoholic. But what was most important, of course, was the personal development offered at University, the intellectual engagement and then the array of career doors that would fling open to you upon graduation. As we hurdled over our GCSEs and found ourselves in A-level territory, teachers began herding us like sheep along the path towards University. University dons would come into school like salesmen to enlighten us to the perks of their University, whether it was a modern, multi-complex campus, or a charmingly old, historical, prestigious one. Then individual meetings: where are you going? What are you doing? Have you started your UCAS application yet? What do you mean no? Why the bloody hell not?! As far as I can remember, no employers ever came in to talk about potential post A-level careers for those not seduced by the idea of University…

 

And, as the French say, hop! There I was, being carted off to my decrepit halls by my parents, sat on the squeaky bed (I wonder why the… Oh, I’d rather not think about that actually) and glaring at the once-white but now tawny walls wondering how I’d ended up in this unfamiliar and unpleasantly smelly place. Not that I wasn’t excited, of course. I enjoyed my studies and chose to do a degree that would allow me to carry on doing what I like, namely read and learn French. I met a panoply of new people from all over the place, improved my British and world geography a bit in the process, found that a lump of money had appeared in my bank from seemingly nowhere to pay for rent, food, books and beer and settled down to my new Uni life. Four years on, I don’t know where the time has gone (nor the money) and I’m left wondering whether it was all worth it. Because it is quite costly, this Uni lark. And it’s not getting any cheaper. In fact, in 2010 while I was still getting my head around the whole thing, student fees were hiked up from an already damaging £3,300 to an even more startlingly painful maximum of £9,000 per year, a maximum swiftly implemented by the majority of UK Universities. While this change did not affect me, I will still leave University with a monstropolous debt and, with those dastardly doors of opportunity proving to be but a vicious rumour, seemingly not much hope of paying it back any time soon.

To match feature FINANCIAL/GRADUATES

Student fees and living costs may make up the large bulk of students’ financial woes, but it is by no means the whole picture. One of the most surprising aspects of University life was that, despite already paying over £3,300 per year in fees, there were still an array of services that students are forced to pay for in addition to those costs. Printing for example. At 5p per black and white page, you might think that to be a reasonable ask. But after printing out God-knows-how-many essays over the years, I dread to imagine the amount of money, with which I should be ‘living’, I have dejectedly and reluctantly tumbled into the printing credits machine. Another one is on-campus services such as the sports centre/gym. Students are infamous for their financial shortcomings, yet nonetheless the gym will set you back £187 for nine months. Moreover, if you participate in any sporting group you will also need an AU card which will slap an additional £35 to your bill. Keeping fit has never seemed so unappealing! At £20.80 per month, it is actually cheaper to simply go to a local gym in the city. And, may I add, this price is a special offer dedicated to the precious students of the University who must be looked after. Generous…

 

Arriving back on campus this year after my year abroad in France, I spotted half a dozen brand-spanking-new, multi-storey buildings which, I soon learnt, were dedicated to new student housing provided by the University. Reflecting back on my own lurid halls I felt a tinge (a bit more than a tinge, actually) of jealousy but folded my lip and nodded in approval that the University was, putatively, concerned about the student’s experience. That was until I learnt the price that the University was charging for these rooms. In my first year, I paid £82 per week for a self-catered room near these new halls, which was steep even then. Now I live 10 minutes out of town and pay £55 per week. The newly built halls, I found, will cost £140 per week for a minimum 39-week contract. That is for a single bed, self-catered with the smallest available room. Which makes it around £5,450 for the two semesters of the academic year. For many students, their entire student loan would not even cover this amount of rent, and on top of that there is food, travel, books and not to mention those flaming printing credits to be paid for. Left astounded, I wondered how anyone could afford this accommodation. A few weeks later, speaking with a friend, he indicated me to a rumour claiming that the University, which already holds a large international community of students, is looking to extend their international influx to around 50% of the total student population. International students who don’t know the prices of the area and will be looking for accommodation, preferably on campus. Students who the University might help out this some lovely new accommodation dedicated to their much valued students…

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In 6 long weeks, my time at University will be finished and sealed with my graduation in July. Graduation is a ceremony organised by the University to celebrate your success on the completion of your degree. Last week, I received a kind e-mail reminding me to register myself and my family for the ceremony, as well as my gown and, if I wanted them, photographs. Here we go, I thought. I discovered that I was able to register 2 family members, but there was an extra place available upon reservation. For an additional cost of £10 (of course). I was swiftly transferred to the gown hire company and after questions of size and availability, it was indicated that the gown and hat would cost me £45. For the day. If you do not wear this gown at the graduation ceremony, you are not permitted to collect your degree. So, if you go to University today, you will pay £27,000 in fees (for a 3 year course), write essay after essay and sit numerous exams, and still if you want to collect your degree you are obliged to wear an extortionately-priced gown. Perhaps this is just me, but it seems absurd just for the sake of ‘tradition’. If it is obliged, surely students shouldn’t be forced to pay for it, or at the very least to be charged a reasonable amount. And then there are the photos; a package containing 2 large photos and 3 medium-sized will add an extra £60 to your expenditure. Considering it is a celebration of your success, it is certainly a ceremony which will leave many a student, recently graduated, with a large debt and staring at growing student unemployment rates, wondering whether they have just led a very, very merry and expensive dance.

 

All this left me wondering about the status of the modern British University. Once a universally respected establishment churning out the country’s finest youngsters ready to provide an intelligent, abled workforce. Older generations than my own recall how only a selected few from their class, the very brightest, went to University. If I think of my own high school classes, a large majority of them found themselves herded off to one of the many Universities that have sprung up like mushrooms in recent years. Despite the alleged competition for places and prestige of British Universities, student numbers rise every year and the country boasts nearly 2.4 million University students for the 2012/13 academic year. 2.4 million consumers is a large market by any comparison, and I for one am dubious about the supposed reputation for the British University as a centre of academic excellence. Moreover, where is all this money going? With student fees almost tripled and the remainders of students apparent fortunes being raked into the University’s bank balance by some method or other, you’d imagine that the University to be one of the wealthiest establishments in the world with such a golden pot. Yet in the past three months I have witnessed two strikes by ‘menial’/essential University staff such as cooks, cleaners, librarians, who claim that, despite the obvious wave of money coming into the establishment, their pay-packet has actually fallen. At a time when the Leveson enquiry has recently exposed the corruption of the media and the public perceive political parties to be the most corrupt sector in the UK following scandals such as those of Jeremy Hunt and more recently the expenses scandal of former culture secretary Maria Miller, perhaps it is about time we asked more serious questions of the state of the British University.

Thanks for read & let me know your thoughts below,

L.

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