The halcyon days of higher education are over

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More uncertainty hangs over UK universities than ever. Like many other areas of the economy, higher education is suffering. Although there have been burgeoning problems with our education system for a number of years, including questionable financial and administrative structuring, these have been compounded with those arising because of Covid-19.

Higher education is a highly globalised industry as Britain is second only to the US in its share of overseas students and so the limitations on international transport and commerce have hindered this sector too. The pandemic and associated government restrictions have not only profoundly disrupted the education of university students, arguably decreasing the quality of the product being sold, but also shifted the priorities of incoming students as the locations and styles of learning for the next year are as yet uncertain.

Universities must each reassess their strategies for attracting students to maintain their competitive edge in the marketplace of academia and not risk being viewed as outdated and less worth it financially and experientially. There is some urgency here – although the higher education sector prior to the pandemic, according to figures from Hesa, raked in £38.2bn in 2019/20, Covid-19 could cost universities around £2.5 billion in fees and grants. In light of all this, the halcyon days of higher education would certainly appear to be over.

Covid-19 has exacerbated pre-existing problems, making students feel their education is worth less

The strategy and structure of higher education over the last decade have resulted in universities not fully performing their essential functions, which are to further knowledge and provide the highest quality education to their students. Since the coalition years, well-meaning efforts to marketise higher education have actually increased regulation and led to bloated salaries for bureaucrats.

Philip Cunliffe puts in this way: “British universities now have the worst of the market and the worst of the state”. In a report he co-authored for Cieo he persuasively argues that higher education is declining in quality. There is other support for this as almost one in three graduates are working in non-graduate jobs and attention is diverted away from the fact that almost half of student loans will not be repaid. This proves change is needed, and to do this we must highlight the existing problems constructively.

On top of this, prior to the pandemic universities had made big expansion plans which, especially in light of increased online learning, do not necessarily improve education quality. These plans relied on debt-fuelled spending and the ability to increase student numbers year-on-year. For example, Durham is spending £105 million on development projects outlined in its Estate Masterplan. Overall, university spending has risen from £1.04bn in 1995/6 to £5.25bn in 2018/19. Yet, there has been little to show for this spending spree in terms of education quality and supposed improvements in economic productivity.

Further, marketing vast campuses incentivises the next cohort of students less than in previous years as the future balance of blended versus in-person learning is uncertain. The pandemic has foregrounded just how unsustainable universities current expansionism is and its limited power to draw incoming students.

As Spiked columnist Joanna Williams says, “universities are pressing the self-destruct button” if they continue with a ‘business as usual’ approach. If, instead of focussing on expansion, universities were to invest those funds in equipment, digital resources and student support services then they would be enhancing instead of inadvertently diluting the impact of degrees they award. I hope we see more of this. In continuing with current strategies outlined here, the pursuit of ‘knowledge for knowledge sake’ has become an afterthought.

Returning to the damaging effects of the pandemic on current students, 2021 looks set to be largely virtual. Lockdown has continued beyond its first anniversary in March, whilst the vulnerable groups are continuing to be vaccinated. In the meantime, students should be vocally pushing for the return to greater in-person teaching. After all, “Going to university is not the same as purchasing a Netflix subscription, and attending a lecture is about far more than watching a screen in your bedroom”.

Lucy, a 3rd year student at Durham, highlighted this when discussing the reasons for the student dissatisfaction in a recent interview for the Planet Normal podcast: “[Students] are the future scientists, the future politicians and future epidemiologists of the world… and we are… just being forgotten” “[we] just want to do what we are meant to… which is getting a really great education and having a good time whilst doing it”.

Students should be advised of their consumer rights if they feel they have received an inadequate education

The current detrimental effects of Covid-19 have exacerbated pre-existing problems, making students feel their education is worth less financially and experientially. This must change. One problem is that it has augmented residual student dissatisfaction from previous staff strike actions. Another is that the already strained mental health services for students are in greater demand. Students continue to face isolation and loneliness, either in university halls or at home separated from friends.

They shouldn’t have to swallow this bitter pill, at least not unquestioningly. Lucy also mentions on the podcast her concern about the additional difficulties of online learning – a friend of hers was hospitalised with stress-induced symptoms. Of course, whilst in-person teaching is banned to protect against coronavirus a ‘return-to-normal’ is unrealistic. However, universities need to do more to mitigate the impact of these factors on the quality of education students receive.

In short, it is time for universities to wake up to the fact that they are letting students down in terms of providing a satisfactory experience as well as neglecting the very reason they exist: education. They must also halt their needless expansion which harms the quality of learning. If universities fail to do this and continue to pursue their current approaches, then Philip Cunliffe’s description of higher education as a system of “market Stalinism…[with] enormous waste, rampant petty authoritarianism and over-bearing managers”, will become worryingly applicable.

One final note is that, given the extensive complications and problems that the education sector faces – not all of which can be addressed in a single article – bodies such as the Office for Students must ensure that all students are advised of their consumer rights if they feel they have received an inadequate education.

is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank that facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.

Photograph: Thomas Tomlinson.

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