tuition fees

How do you make first year count enough to feel worthwhile?

After discussing whether a year at university seems worth paying £9,000 in tuition fees, I got thinking about Freshers. I’ve long said that the first year of university does count, but not in terms of needing the highest grades possible.

A recent Guardian piece quotes Nottingham student, Emily Tripp:

“It doesn’t make sense to have a ‘practice’ year in the year when you’re doing the least outside of your degree. Either make the first semester not count, or get lecturers to set practice essays that don’t count.”

With the prospect of some students ignoring the academic importance of the first year, second year can be a lot of catch-up. What could have been practice becomes time wasted.

halls of residence (photo by Peter J Dean)

Is this student kitchen empty because they’re busy at work in their rooms? (photo by Peter J Dean)

The question is, how do you make the first year count enough to feel worthwhile, yet remain focused on Fresher year and allowing a gradual development?

The ‘first year doesn’t count’ attitude has been around for years and doesn’t show signs of going away. Yet. It used to be a misunderstood concept. Now it’s resented. A mental link between fees and value does little more than annoy those who want to get on with the work. Worse, schoolchildren already fear the financial implications of university, according to a Sutton Trust report. For those who do end up attending, that first year may fuel their fears, rather than put them at ease academically.

Student experience is a changing term. Every experience is different and students’ requirements alter over the years.

The 2012 UNITE Student Experience Report interviewed over 1,200 applicants to university. The survey picks up on changing attitudes:

“University is no longer three years of partying and cruising through for a 2.2 degree. Now it costs so much, you can’t afford to waste the experience… People are now going to university with the view of the future; the ‘student experience’ is changing from socialising to setting yourself up for the future.”

Nothing too surprising there. You don’t want to waste the experience, so you want to work where it counts. There are many activities outside of the degree itself, but resentment may begin because they aren’t seen as part of the tuition fee. A student making their mark across a range of extra-curricular sessions could still feel their first year is a waste of time.

Freshers Fayre (photo by upsuportsmouth)

Taking part in many activities. But do students find value in paying for the first year at university? (photo by upsuportsmouth)

The Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey for 2012 found large numbers of students attending university in order to improve job opportunities and salary prospects. Plenty also wanted to improve knowledge in their area of interest, yet their main focus is apparently on the future.

With such an eye on life after university, the first year may feel like a case of running on the spot: you’re working, but you’re not going anywhere.

If a perceived link between fees and grades can’t be pulled apart, what can be done?

Universities could drop the first year entirely. But that’s an extreme first option and tough for institutions to implement without massive upheaval, not to mention the higher workload on academics who may have to shun research completely to deal with such a change. Two-year degrees are on offer at the University of Buckingham, so there is potential for some universities to make the move, especially those that focus only on teaching.

There’s also the option to make the first year count so that students must rely on getting good marks in order to achieve a better grade upon graduation. You wouldn’t want to aim at a bare minimum 40% pass then, would you?

But that skirts around the issue, rather than addressing it. So what else can be done?

  • Shortening need to merely pass to first term instead? – An entire year may feel excessive to many students. A single semester could be the answer. Give students room to jump off, but don’t drag it out for a third of the degree.
  • More face-to-face tutor time to explain reasons why first year does count? – Second year is a time for many to hurriedly get up to speed and develop a decent academic tone. Can better and longer quality time with tutors help first years to understand where the first year has real value? The better you work toward the first year of work, the greater potential you have when you reach the second year and the grades matter. If you average the first year with a 2:1, the coming years should be more comfortable for you than for those who average with a Third.
  • Combine the many threads of induction so it achieves a greater purpose? – When you arrive on campus, there is a lot to take in. Induction is a big deal, even if it doesn’t stop the sense of overwhelm.
    Institutions could tighten induction programmes even further by placing much importance on introductory academic development and extending that aspect of induction further into the year.
    This would still take less time than a whole year, yet–done well–would potentially help students more in the process.
    Induction is different dependent on institution, and there is already a focus on academic transition alongside everything else new. Nevertheless, continued work on a solid student introduction may be the difference between resenting the first year and taking responsibility regardless of the maximum grades under offer.
    Morosanu, Handley and O’Donovan have a great academic paper worth reading on transition and induction, “Seeking Support: Researching first-year students’ experiences of coping with academic life“.
  • Explore how ‘ready’ students are and assess needs more closely for a changing intake and higher number of students? – Admitting so many students means that universities are faced with people from many different backgrounds with a huge range of experiences. Some will be prepared for academic work from the outset, while others will need a lot of attention before they understand what is expected of them.
    The difficulty with a broad brush approach to first year is that it takes so long. One complete academic year. Not everybody requires such a lengthy run-up. But neither is it possible to shift goalposts for one set of people while leaving others behind.
    Further research should be undertaken to evaluate the current and changing needs of new students. Old methods may no longer be the right way forward, even if they stood the test of time for so long beforehand.

For me, the first year is about mindset. To rely on grades alone to judge whether or not first year is worthwhile is pointless. The fees situation gets in the way, frustratingly. Students need clarification on how to get the most value out of their experience in the early stages of their degree. However, institutions must also ensure that first year stays relevant to incoming years.

If the attitude of ‘first year doesn’t count’ remains in place for too long under this fees system, the disservice already visible for many years will prove more damaging each year it hangs around.

On Saying ‘Sorry’

When I read the headline that Nick Clegg had apologised over the Liberal Democrat tuition fees pledge, I shrugged. It’s nothing new.

I did wonder “Why now?” and found that the Lib Dem Conference is coming. Clegg’s video apology is a party political broadcast solely dedicated to when they made the pledge to vote against any type of tuition fees rise, under any circumstances.

It didn’t take long for an ‘honest’ subtitled version of the video to emerge. There’s even an auto-tune mix of Clegg’s broadcast.

While much of the Twitter response and online comments have decided not to play along with the apology, there has clearly been some playing along for laughs.

You don’t get to see many MPs saying a very direct ‘sorry’. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that many policy wonks, student leaders and HE staff will give it time of day.

The video wasn’t made for those of us more involved, though. These things are produced in order to cover a wider public whose interest hasn’t strayed much beyond what’s in the papers and on the news. Helen Lewis in the New Statesman says, “Making the video is a bold move from Clegg”.

Will it be enough to soften up some people and bring a renewed optimism to some of the public? The reaction so far suggests it might not. And while it’s hardly scientific (and probably still not looking at a wide enough cross-section of the public), there are nearly three YouTube dislikes for every one like on Clegg’s apology video (at time of writing, 392 likes, 1027 dislikes).

NUS President, Liam Burns, said that Clegg should apologise for breaking the pledge, not making it. Clegg expressed regret in the past for having made the pledge. Has there been any regret in having broken it?

Clegg’s move is an attempt to draw a line under an issue that already had a line drawn under it many moons ago. This apology doesn’t do anything new. Votes were cast, the choices were made, the game was changed, and the situation is playing out as we speak.

That situation continues to change and we’re bound to see more policy tweaks ongoing. Think of it as the policy equivalent of the credit crunch. If enough people make enough changes and they all impact on each other, the resulting confusion will ensure that nobody knows what’s going on where, how everything is linked any more, or how to get back on track.

Clegg’s apology video is not a change in policy. Neither does it put matters in a new perspective. For a view of Clegg’s position when the tuition fees issue was still fresh, look no further than William Cullerne Bown’s assessment from 2010.

‘Sorry’ seems to be the hardest word…And for many students, ‘Apology accepted’ may be the hardest reply.

The £9k exception norm

Today’s headlines on tuition fees are promising large rises. I’m about to discuss the fees announcement. But don’t be alarmed by the numbers.

MoneySavingExpert has a guide to understanding the new fees and loans system for 2012/13 and it’s worth checking that rather than worry about the figures in isolation.

The figures sound scary, but the reality is different. Whether you agree with it or not is a different matter.

There are underlying issues that could arise due to the government selling off loans in the future, but hopefully it won’t be something we need to cover. If you do want to read more about the sale of student loans, check out Part 3 of Andrew McGettigan’s report, “False Accounting? Why the government’s Higher Education reforms don’t add up” [PDF]. It’s also worth reading McGettigan’s recent post on finances at his blog, Critical Education.

Now on to the fees announcement.

photo by Leo Reynolds

photo by Leo Reynolds

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has published details of university fees for 2013/14. The fees are even closer to the £9,000 cap than they already were for 2012/13, when the new fees come into play. FT’s data blog lists the full 2012/13 fees.

After financial support from all areas is taken into consideration, the estimated average fee for 2013/14 is set to be £7,898.

That’s once everything is taken into account. A potential difference of £1,102 between the adjusted average and the absolute maximum fee. Not exactly the suggested ‘market’ that was touted.

A yearly fee above £6,000 was supposed to be the exception. Many HE commentators weren’t convinced. In November 2010, I suggested that we should “expect to see the cap become the price“. It hasn’t taken long.

In March 2011, I acknowledged that finances and access agreements cannot be worked out in any short-term plan:

“It seems that, even without any changes to the proposed fees system in coming years, it’s going to take a couple of runs through the process before we get a true picture of what’s happening.” [Source]

The new fees regime for 2012/13 hasn’t even begun and the next year of fees has been set. Clearing doesn’t start for a couple of weeks, and that’s set to be different to previous years. Salford VC, Martin Hall, says that clearing is “no longer a mopping-up opportunity for those who didn’t get their expected grades to find a spare place”.

This is just the start.

It’s understandable that fees have long been the big talking point surrounding higher education since the changes were announced. Sadly, that’s been to the detriment of other HE discussions. Postgraduates, institutional diversity, student engagement, the loans system and its future, public perceptions and engagement with HE…There is so much to talk about. It’s as if fees talk got in the way of other conversations. Well, unless you were more directly involved or particularly keen on HE policy and wonk-talk!

For applicants, there is still little reason to limit choices based on tuition fees other than the occasional exception. In general, the slight differences are less important than other considerations. The new fees system was billed to give students greater choice. People would vote with their feet and not accept unreasonably high fees as a matter of course.

With fees set so close to the cap, where will those feet tread?

Many considerations are needed when making university choices. It depends on each person and why they wish to attend (including whether or not to attend at all). I’ve got a list of 50 things to think about for uni decisions. It’s not exhaustive, because that’s not possible.

Fees may not be so important in choices right now, but bursaries are still worth researching. Bursaries make an immediate impact, unlike fee waivers, because the money goes directly to the student. Prospective students should make sure they know what bursaries are available to them.

Some institutions may find new reasons to set very different fees once we’re a year or two into the new system. There’s no way to accurately foretell this because there are no direct comparisons. Also, any additional policy changes change the situation once more. And there’s still a lot of room for that to happen.

However, as things currently stand, it’s clear that fees are sitting firmly around that £9k cap. Who’da thunk it?

Make the most of your £9,000 year at university

I’ve argued before that fees themselves don’t act as a deterrent to university, since higher education is seen by many as the only feasible route to career success. There is much more to higher education, but it’s hard to deny that a large number of people take the HE path in the hope of improving future prospects.

The Independent asked students and graduates if they would have paid £9k per year. That question isn’t so important right now, but some of the answers given are definitely worth exploring.

photo by mattwi1s0n
£9k fees? What say you? – photo by mattwi1s0n

Nottingham graduate Luke Martin puts the student experience into perspective:

“The ‘university life’ is a deeply individual one and it’s a shame to imagine it simply as a (very expensive) commodity, when for most it’s an all encompassing and enjoyable lived experience.”

You have a wealth of opportunity at university. It’s easy to imagine that a degree is the most important end product of your study. In reality, many other actions over the years can surpass that seemingly crucial grade.

Qualifications are certainly important, but they’re no replacement for other achievement and personal experience.

Luke Martin adds, “I suspect that I took a lot out of it that can’t be measured in pounds”. While you can’t put a monetary value on everything you do, you should attempt to translate as many of your actions into meaningful examples that others can understand.

Build upon your long-term plan. How far have you looking into the future? You don’t know what’s awaiting you around the corner, but that’s not an excuse to abandon forward planning.

It’s all too easy to see graduation as a million miles away. Even if you think it’s approaching fast, it’s just as easy to think the job search starts when you’ve finished studying. But it doesn’t.

Your search has already started. If you’re at uni to improve your prospects, every minute is potential time to be winning. Some ideas that are quick to start, quick to implement, but require a long time to make a mark:

  • Start a blog: Blogs almost never achieve overnight success. Three posts do not make a must-read blog. A consistent effort, however, can yield results. There is no sure-fire way of reaching a huge audience and/or huge respect, but you’re guaranteed not to reach it if you don’t try at all.
  • Build online network profiles aimed at your chosen career/job route: Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like aren’t overnight success stories (unless you’re Charlie Sheen). Thankfully, you only need short, committed bursts of activity to make a difference over time. But do commit to it, otherwise you’re profile risks going stale.
  • Get working on a career RIGHT NOW: Ask yourself, “What can I do straight away to move closer to a role in X industry?” If you had a free reign to work on whatever project you wanted, what would you choose? If you aren’t already doing that now, what’s stopping you? Take your unexecuted ideas and start bringing them to life.
  • Volunteer: There are plenty opportunities to volunteer. It doesn’t have to be charity work and it needn’t be in a formal job situation. Giving up your time to support a cause and to enhance your own experience will look great ongoing. However, there’s no point in volunteering simply to look good on paper. It doesn’t work. Your aim is to provide value and enthusiasm. You may even build some amazing contacts, memories and future opportunities in the process.
  • Seek out a mentor: We learn from the actions of others from birth. You may already know someone who you respect and could learn a lot from. If you do, why not tell them how you feel they could help you with a bit of guidance. They will likely feel flattered and be delighted to spend some time with you. And the worst they can do is say no!
    If you don’t know anyone personally, Forbes has an 8-step plan to find a mentor and a slideshow with the steps too.

After you graduate, your overall experience is worth more than just the degree. One graduate suggests: “We’re left in a world where a degree is just an expensive, bog-standard qualification.”

While I don’t agree in such harsh tones, it’s true that a degree, in isolation, is no longer enough to secure the employment of your choosing. You must put the legwork in to use your degree and the skills you developed, because the piece of paper isn’t going to make a big noise on your behalf.

An increasing number of graduates find it insanely difficult to secure suitable employment. However, it is no reason to wash your hands of higher education. In a world of ‘quick fixes’ and ‘instant access‘, you’ve still got to play the slow game for some things, frustrating as that may be.

I’ll leave the last words to KCL graduate, Daniel Smith. No matter what the cost, we’re all different and it’s in your own interests to make your experience worthwhile, amazing, and relevant to who you want to be:

“Each student will have a different experience to the next and just because everyone has a degree does not mean there is an equal starting point when looking to start a career after university. In a fundamental sense though, a degree is worth any amount of money, if it’s something you’ve always wanted to aspire to.”