James Wallice is studying politics and International Relations at Cardiff University, where he is currently President of Cardiff University Conservative Association.
The price that students are indebted with for pursuing an average academic degree in higher education is £27,750. Split over three consecutive years, this puts the price of an undergraduate degree at £3,083.33 a term, £102.78 a week, £20.56 a day.
To the majority of students, this is a debt that will be carried into late life, only to be wiped off their record finally at the age of 50. Over the last year, however, students have faced several obstacles that have brought into question the legitimacy of this finance system.
Late last year, students across the country had to submit to eight days of strike action as members of the University and College Union protested over their working conditions.
This year, staff and lecturers at 74 universities across the UK are committed to a further two weeks of industrial action, split across four weeks of the academic term. This culminated in 22 vitally important academic days missed, with deadlines having been pushed back, grade submission delayed by several weeks and an unknown financial loss for students.
And most recently, every university across the country has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With lectures and seminars moving online, face-to-face contact hours axed, and the closing of vital university resources, such as libraries and computer suites. Students have been left with the question: have they received value for money?
Before we delve into that subject, we must probe the expenditure of University fees. Although it is not publicly grasped, universities spend a significantly large percentage of our tuition fees in several important departments: contact hours; resources; student support; students’ union; and admin.
All five departments represent key gears that keep our universities ticking. However, if they were any other sector, and consumers were denied the service for which they were paying, a refund or claim would be the natural course of action. Yet this isn’t the norm, nor does it often take place in the higher education sector.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen students up and down the country speak out against their universities, claiming to have lost hundreds of pounds worth of contact hours due to industrial action and COVID-19 and ,whilst universities have quite rightly shut resource centres in line with Government guidelines, there remains a degree of unhappiness amongst the student population.
Whilst vice-chancellors claim that learning opportunities can continue online, students are still unable to set foot in libraries and computer suites, or gain vital access to face-to-face student services. One can’t help but think that should students have received an education uninterrupted by strike action in the first place, the degree of disgruntlement would not have been as prominent today.
When students get burdened with a minimum of £27,750 of student fee debt at the end of their academic journey, they want to be able to look back and say it was worth it. Yet at the moment, we are essentially taking online classes in which they are expected to pay the same fee.
It goes without saying that students can’t expect the same service during the current global health crisis, as they did before. However, universities must recognise that because services have had to have been scaled back, it is only right that the price of our tuition fees is reevaluated as well.
In an ideal world, this would be the case. However, last week we saw Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, state that “without government support, some universities would face financial failure” – crushing the hope of any financial support as a result of COVID-19 and UCU strike action.
Yet whilst students continue to face disruption without the receipt of financial aid from our institutions, the growing consensus amongst the student population is that our universities can’t continue to work as they do.
Post-COVID-19 our society will be significantly different from the one we had come to love. Indeed, the same should be said for our education system, specifically our universities. Students cannot continue to pay for a service that is faced with continuous strike action, disruption and uncertainty.
COVID-19 is going to have an everlasting effect and so it’s vitally important our universities seize this as an opportunity to change and adapt the way we pay for our higher education. What rings clear amongst university campuses up and down the country, is that we should be shortchanged no more. Either our universities reform their financial systems, or our universities lose whatever student support they still have left.