students

Deal with the best and worst of university open days

Open days provide a fantastic way to find out about each university.  You get a direct feel for the place, to see how it suits you as an individual.

photo by Toni Blay

photo by Toni Blay

In 2009, The Student Room asked over a thousand students about the best and worst things about open days.  Using the top answers given, let’s explore how to make the best use of what you’re likely to encounter:

Best things

  • The friendly atmosphere. The universities obviously want to make the visit as beneficial as possible.

So…Don’t hold back.

Find out as much as you can. Ask questions, speak to as many people as possible, explore as much of the place as you can.  Don’t worry about relaxing; you can chill out later.

Each presentation and tour is designed to look as good as possible.  You needn’t be overly sceptical, but do expect an over-emphasis on what they want you to see.  Nobody is going to highlight how awful a particular aspect of the uni is.  Just remember that nowhere is perfect.

The Student Room is a useful forum for speaking to current students about what you’re most interested in.  If it still gets the thumbs up, that’s a good thing.

  • Freebies!

So…Take what you can, but don’t let it influence your choice.

Free stuff will make you feel good, but it’s not a sign of a good establishment.  The goodies are great, but unrelated to how the university will actually be.

  • Being able to get a feel for the place.

So…Explore as much as you can.

Go beyond the official tour route if you can.  And visit the surrounding area too.  Because you won’t spend all your life on campus!

  • Meeting new people and feeling more independent.

So…Don’t hold back.

It’s great to experience this type of thing on your own, because you’re not being drawn into other people’s opinions.  While it’s great to hear what parents think about the place, the only person needing a solid opinion is YOU.

  • Getting to talk to students and lecturers there.

So…Ask important and relevant questions to you.

Leave basic points and anything you can check in information packs later.  You can always email or call up if you still need a specific answer to something.

If possible, be armed with one or two big questions you want answered over everything else.  That way, you have your priorities clear.

 

photo by Goodimages

photo by Goodimages

Worst things

  • Being alone and with people you don’t know!

Solution…Treat the day like a fact-finding mission, not a social experience.

You’re going there to make notes, not friends.

That said, if you do get chatting with other potential students, it’s all good!  Getting to know new people is something all new students have to become accustomed to once they hit campus for the first time.  Unless you end up attending uni in your home town, a move away forces you to make new friends.  And that’s a good thing.

  • Events do not give you much time to explore the university yourself.

Solution…Get there early or stay a bit late.

Consider staying nearby overnight if you can stretch that far.  If you’re serious about the place you’re visiting, spend enough time to cover all you want to know, including about the surrounding area. Nothing beats first hand experience of a place.

  • Limited access to the full range of accommodation.

Solution…Check brochures, the prospectus, the university website, and so on.

Email the uni to ask for more information.  Ask current students (via The Student Room again…hurrah!) what the accommodation is like.

  • Being nervous, not having enough time to find out everything you want to know, forgetting questions you want to ask.

Solution…Prepare questions in advance.

And if you’re too worried to speak up, note the names of people you want to speak to and try getting in touch with them after the open day itself.  Email addresses, Twitter accounts, and so on, for staff and student reps aren’t difficult to find or ask for.

  • Travelling – “Driving with the parents”.

Solution…Discuss with parents what you want out of the day beforehand.

If you want to prepare in silence or with headphones on, tell them in advance and explain why that way of preparing is important for you. But remember it’s natural for parents to get excited about your future, nervous about your future, pushy about your future, etc.

Alternatively, you could go alone.  I know that’s not always possible.  Your parents may not even allow you to go alone…

But it’s no big deal.  There will be more than enough independent time once you *are* at uni. You can look forward to that. And then you may just start to miss your parents a bit. :)

  • It gets crowded and there are long queues.

Soultion… Look for a less crowded route.

People tend to follow each other in a set route, even when a route hasn’t been set out.  If there’s no route, don’t act like you’re in a crowd.  Move out somewhere else and check out the crowded bit once it has died down.

Failing that, you may be able to hang back until people move on.  It doesn’t matter if you’re the first or last person to see the information.

A new cap or a new price?

The government today responded to the Browne review recommendations.  A few brief details on government proposals:

  • A rise in the tuition fee cap up to a possible £9,000 (including a lower cap of £6,000);
  • higher interest rates on loans, up to 3% above inflation;
  • students pay back once they earn above £21,000;
  • slightly higher maintenance grant for students from families earning below £25,000;
  • Introduction of £150m ‘National Scholarships Programme';
  • greater loan support for part-time students.

For greater detail, Times Higher Education have put together the main detail in the proposals.  There will be a lot more discussion throughout the week across the media, that’s for sure.  Then there’s the small matter of a demo in London on November 10…

Wordle: David Willetts - 3 Nov 2010, response to Browne & HE proposals

Just after the majority of teaching funding was slashed by the government, universities are going to have to find a lot of money from elsewhere.  So it’s unlikely that institutions will want to charge less than £9,000 if possible.  As with many capping exercises of the past, expect to see the cap become the price. Chances are that £9,000 will become a standard figure, with £6,000 being charged by any universities that cannot work toward the extra agreements.  Whether or not you agree with a full marketisation of higher education in a cap-less system, it’s hard to see a variable rate up to £6,000 or £9,000 do more than push the standard price up across all institutions.

This situation is clearly one in which the financial burden will be placed on students.  Those in favour of these changes are keen to say that it is graduates, not students, who will pay back the debt.  These graduates are still the same individuals, regardless of what you call them.  Students don’t pay up front at the moment, so the government is not proposing any type of revolutionary change.

Today’s proposals appear to be more of an offsetting exercise in regard to government debts. People won’t be saddled with credit card or mortgage style debts, but neither are they faced with that under today’s system.

Graduates will likely pay back more over 30 years.  The lower debt we currently have, coupled with a cut off of 25 years, is not much different to a higher debt and a cut off of 30 years.  The only real difference is the amount of time many individuals spend paying money back.  Some call this a stealth tax.  Some say that NUS and other opponents to fee hikes are scaring potential students unnecessarily.

Yet these proposals will make an impact.  And alternative measures have been offered.  For example, NUS released a blueprint outlining a graduate tax long before the Browne review was announced.  That graduate tax was essentially ignored.  The type of graduate tax dismissed in the Browne report was a basic, pure graduate tax; not the one offered by NUS.

For all the discussion going on today and all the debate within government, today’s proposals are not all that different to what is currently on offer.  Yes, graduates won’t find themselves having to pay scary amounts every month once they’re earning over £21,000, but those payments will go on for much longer than they do today, because:

  1. The fees will be higher;
  2. The interest rate will be higher than inflation;
  3. The cut off before remaining debt is written off will go up from 25 years to 30 years.

Some complaints regarding the graduate tax offered by NUS suggested that many graduates would have to pay back more than they do now.

However, at a time when fees are set to potentially treble, that argument cannot work.  There are pros and cons to everything.  Despite mentioning NUS recommendations, I’m not suggesting any particular solution here.  My main issue is that people are not being listened to.

And while debate rolls on regarding the future of HE, it’s difficult for anyone to sensibly debate the issues because the goal posts keep being changed.  Is it any wonder so many people are angry at Liberal Democrat moves to support higher fees when every single Lib Dem MP signed the NUS pledge that they would not support those very proposals?

Situations change and decisions do need to be updated based on new developments.  However, much of the situation was known when those pledges were signed and many alternatives had been proposed, including by Lib Dems themselves.

With an almost total cut in government funding for university teaching, much higher fees will not provide universities with extra income.  Those fees will also, therefore, result in no change to the student experience.  The individual is set to pay more for the same and, quite possibly, more for less.

It is, therefore, no surprise that so many students, academics, parents, and other individuals are unhappy with what’s happening in higher education right now.

As things stand, I imagine there will be a considerable turn out in London on November 10.  Mario Creatura recently said:

“I’m concerned that the decision to protest has been built on a foundation of emotive language gleaned from activists and the headlines which were ultimately based on Browne’s recommendation rather than what the coalition has actually said.”

Now the coalition has spoken.  Creatura was worried that the London demo may protest too many issues and cover too much ground.  But I feel this shows the magnitude of what is happening.

The Conservatives have been fond of saying “We’re in this together”, so why can’t people covering all aspects of higher education say the same thing?  The issues may be plenty and cover a large proportion of HE, but that’s exactly the reason why solidarity is necessary more than ever.

Far from diluting the noise, a collective effort may be exactly what’s needed to point out why the situation must be taken more seriously and with greater focus on the bigger picture.

The government wants students to have more of a say in what’s important to them regarding higher education.  I couldn’t agree more.  It’s time to speak up.

Universities: A non-market market?

With a Browne Report and a Comprehensive Spending Review out of the way, it’s now clear to see what the future holds.

Wait, no it’s not.  The future is more clouded than ever.  Fiddlesticks.

If you’ve had any interest in Browne and the CSR, you’ll have seen plenty of commentary.  I don’t want to go over the same stuff, although I’ve made lots of notes and can post more at popular request… ;)

Instead, I’ll keep in brief.  And I’ll leave most of the words to others.

Giles H. Brown, Editor-in-Chief of HE policy journal, Perspectives, explains that universities can’t be viewed the same way as businesses:

“Research suggest tertiary education is unlikely ever to operate as a market in a way an economist would recognise (Brown 2008); we are therefore likely to remain market-like, but not a market, in the same way as we are increasingly having to be business-like, but cannot operate truly as a business.  Like it or not, we cannot strictly separate the sector from the market; we are increasingly dependent on the ‘market’, while recognising the importance of retaining some degree of autonomy from it.”

[Perspectives, Vol.14, No.3, 2010]

So how much autonomy will there be?  Times Higher Education (THE) highlights concern.  This week’s editorial stresses that Browne claims to be offering universities freedom, but actually introduces a ‘state-controlled and regulated industry‘.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has published their response to the Browne Report, dismissing much of it as a serious way forward.

Then there are the concerns surrounding fees.  Prospective students be warned; if Browne’s proposals go through, there may be no real market on fees, much like now.  THE reports that most unis may have to charge around £8,000 just to get by.  This has led NUS to say the spending review informs an entire generation, “you’re on your own“.  And these possible fee rises may not even accurately factor in the natural decline in 18-21 year olds from 2012.

This may also have a knock-on effect for widening participation.  Steve Smith, President of Universities UK (UUK), explains:

“We know we are facing a demographic downturn from 2012, with a 15.6% decline in the 18- to 21-year-old age group within the decade – not the only cohort, but a major one, for student recruitment: already this year the participation rate has fallen from 41% to 39.7%.  Unless we can raise the attainment levels of 16-year-olds, the numbers coming into higher education from the lower socioeconomic groups will not increase at the pace we would like them to.”

[Perspectives, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2010]

Compare this with Browne’s wish for a further 10% of students to enter higher education.  Getting a particular percentage into HE is not the point.  Widening participation isn’t about greater numbers, it’s about ensuring that those who can benefit from HE are given that chance.  Some people enter HE who would have benefited from something else and I believe just as much effort should be placed on helping these individuals.  One positive aspect of the Browne Report is its recognition that better careers advice and prospective student guidance should be given to allow greater understanding and to give individuals a better chance in making decisions that suit their individual needs.

But can we achieve these things under a market system that doesn’t necessary work like a market?

These are strange times.  Bonkers, in fact.  All of us will be affected one way or another.  And nobody really knows how yet.

But there is one certainty: No matter what your opinion is — even if you don’t care — none of us can put our head in the sand.

Making student places available and how to fund them

Channel 4 News last night provided a debate on the number of students going in to higher education and whether more places should be provided to meet demand.

Many young people are finding it difficult to find a place at uni, despite outstanding grades.  Rejections may come down solely to a flawed personal statement, or some minor issue that’s become a major block.  In all this uncertainty, it’s clear that the current system of allocating places at university is not supporting all those who would benefit from higher education.

photo by id-iom

photo by id-iom

Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of universities, was first to speak on the Channel 4 debate.  She said huge increase in applications forces the question of whether the economy needs this many graduates and, if so, how can we afford them?  Due to world competition, Piatt argued that quality should be maintained.  Why short change students by spreading a limited pot of money too thinly?

Piatt went on to say that the current system does not support greater numbers of students.  Rather than have everybody pay the same amount of money, Piatt said there should be variation, especially as some people earn much more than others.

Strangely, this last point reminded me of an argument for graduate tax, which the Russell Group opposes.  They would rather see the cap on fees raised, if not abolished altogether.

It’s no surprise that the Russell Group want higher fees. They would be able to charge much more, yet maintain a full quota of students.  If any set of universities can stay strong based on their history and prestige, it is this set.

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

Professor Leslie Davies, vice chair of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said that HE currently caters for different purposes, needs and lifestyles. However, there needs to be further diversification to meet learner’s needs.  For instance, not all students want to move away from home for three years now.  A big shift is happening with better informed students looking more closely at career prospects.

Davies explained that employers are looking for a wide range of qualifications and skills from the workforce, with many companies recognising A-levels as a way in, as well as Diplomas and vocational routes.  A “one size fits all” approach is no longer helpful, so young people require better advice and guidance to suit their personal situation.

NUS President, Aaron Porter, warned of greater costs for the government unless more places were created for students.  The burden on jobseeker’s allowance with many people out of work could be huge, he argued, with the number of jobs drying up and fierce competition for apprenticeships.

In terms of debt, Porter disagreed with Piatt that degree costs should be variable based on course studied.  Some people choose to study law & economics and want to be a teacher.  Why should they be saddled with more debt if they go on to that totally different vocation?

Porter said that both individuals and the state will lose out if the state continues to set an artificial cap on places.  Students should be able to attend university if they wish and demonstrate the ability and grades.  Compared with OECD countries, the UK is slipping down the tables fast.  More people are entering higher education in other countries compared with here, which could severely limit the UK workforce.

photo by garlandcannon

photo by garlandcannon

How did the students see all this?  Also in the studio was a mix of young people either going to university this year or who had missed out on a place at uni despite good grades.

A selection of comments:

  • Students are a burden, but they are also the next workforce who need the right skills and training;
  • University may not be the only choice, but why stop people who DO want to attend and who have made the grade?
  • Looks like re-stratification. Fine if you can afford Cambridge, otherwise forced to do something else like get a diploma from a ‘random college';
  • Graduate tax is a good idea. However, differential rates do pose a difficulty and it’s not easy to argue the best solution;
  • If you want to go to uni and have your mind set on it, you should have that right.  University is not the only way to kickstart a career.
  • Social perception needs changing before we can better engage public on benefits of HE.  Students are still seen as a lazy bunch who do precious little, but it’s a misconception;
  • Student debt is a growing issue for those looking at future options.  More potential students being turned off now there’s a greater chance of debt skyrocketing further.

The debate made clear that everyone agreed on certain points:

  1. University isn’t the only valid option available to further career prospects;
  2. Better advice and guidance is required to help people make better choices;
  3. Current numbers of students are not sustainable unless some form of change is introduced.

The third point is where much of the agreement breaks down.  The debate rests on where change should be made.  Should diversity naturally lower the number of people filing in to universities?  Should fees be raised and students/graduates shoulder the burden?  Should the artificial cap on places be lifted and funding be sourced from other savings?

I feel the first two points are crucial in assisting the change required in the third point.  Luckily, there is so much agreement on those two points.

Student numbers and funding provision are still the big issues for the government.  In the process, individual choices and the widening of opportunity falls deeper to the background.  What if the way forward was actually moving further away from view?  This is even more pertinent after Nick Clegg’s recent speech on social mobility:

“This is a complex and contested area of both research and policy. And action to improve social mobility will take many years to take effect. In policy terms, it is like turning the wheel on an oil tanker.

“Promoting social mobility is a long-term business. And it is precisely for that reason that it is vital to establish now, at the beginning of our time in office, that promoting social mobility is at the top of our social agenda.”

Social mobility involves more than money and affordability.  This is just the same for universities. Funding may be the problem, but that doesn’t mean it’s also the solution.