Higher value

Introducing tuition fees could throw up a raft of complaints about the quality of the product, writes Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online
Amid the gnashing of teeth about tuition fees, little attention has been paid to the effect that charging will have on attitudes towards higher education. Will students, or their parents, become more pushy when they start paying towards their university tuition next year? Will they become more like the stereotype of American students, demanding better grades, or at any rate an explanation for poor grades? Will they cease to put up with poor lecturing, tutors who take too long to mark essays, queues for the computer room and overcrowding in the library?

The answer - according to most experts - is "yes". Many lecturers used to dealing with fee-paying overseas students already have experience of the demanding ways of some of these students - asking for one-to-one tuition and explanations of grades, for example.

"I think it will make them a good deal more critical," says Laurie Taylor, visiting professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London. "They will demand more, and they may well object to arriving at university to find they're being taught by a 23-year-old who says, `My name is Geoff Noggins and I'm a first-year postgraduate'."

The government plan is that - as from autumn 1998 - students will pay a flat rate of pounds 1,000 a year towards the cost of tuition. Poor families will be exempt from the charge. David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has made it clear that he frowns on the idea of any university charging more in the form of top-up fees, so institutions providing added value will have to do so with the same money as all the others. That means the higher education system will remain what might be called a "closed economy" - government-run, with funding closely controlled by the state.

Student assertiveness has burgeoned in recent years. Successive Conservative governments' emphasis on value for money in public services, the student's charter, the introduction of proper complaints mechanisms in universities - all have created a climate in which students are more likely to stand up for their rights. Students, particularly postgraduates, who have to pay for their studies if they cannot secure funding from a research council or equivalent, have become more litigious.

"Fees will undoubtedly consolidate that trend," says Professor Alan Lloyd, a classicist, who is pro-vice-chancellor in charge of academic affairs at the University of Wales, Swansea. Other academics agree. "People who pay feel they're entitled to be treated properly," says Dr Nicholas Barr, senior lecturer in economics at the London School of Economics. "People who get freebies don't, in the same way. There was this idea that higher education was free, so it didn't matter if it was a bit rough around the edges. I am sure, if you're handing pounds 1,000 in tuition fees to a university, it's a natural response to be more demanding."

It is possible - because they know how cash-strapped British universities are - that students will be less fussy about facilities than about the teaching they receive. It may be that they will care much more about whether their lecturers are in their offices, marking essays properly and turning them round in good time, than about whether the photocopier works.

According to Peter Hennessy, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London University, students paying to study for the MA in history at his college expect the course to be as it was advertised. They also expect their teachers to make an effort. "A paying clientele helps to remind us that our core business is the transmission of learning," says Professor Hennessy. "Some academics need reminding of that."

Harry Judge, former director of Oxford's department of educational studies, says students are unlikely to become more aggressive. Although undergraduates in America are lively and engaged, the reality is that they do put up with some mediocre teaching, he points out. But, he thinks, paying fees is likely to make students more discriminating about their choice of university and their choice of subject.

"It has become too easy for young people who don't know what they want to do for the rest of their lives to use higher education as a parking place while they sort themselves out at the public's expense. When they have to pay, they will think long and hard about what they want to do in higher education, and what it will lead to afterwards."

That point is echoed by Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University, who says paying for tuition will bring a healthy dose of reality to student thinking about higher education. "The expectation has grown up that you move from the sixth form to university, you go to a course you fancy, and even if it doesn't turn out to be what you want, it's good to get away from Mum and Dad for three years. It has become a bit of a conveyor belt, and charging fees is going to be a reality test."

If the National Union of Students is right in saying that it costs pounds 4,500 a year for board and lodging, students will have to find pounds 13,500 altogether to pay for their living costs. On top of that, from 1998 the better-off will have to pay pounds 1,000 a year in fees. That means it will cost them a total of pounds 16,500 to acquire a three-year degree. Inevitably that will mean students looking more carefully at what they're getting out of their courses personally, and whether their degree will lead to a job, says Professor Smithers.

On some courses and at some universities, he maintains, first-year students are marking time while others in their classes who are not so well prepared are brought up to scratch. "Some students are going to say, `You should be building on where I am now, not repeating what I did at school,'" he says. "Quite often universities spend a couple of terms trying to bring all their students to the same point."

The Open University provides an example of how things could go. OU students have always had to pay fees. If they don't have their work returned on time, or find their tutors' comments unhelpful, they can complain to a higher level. "The university soon got to know which tutors were looking after the students and which weren't," adds Professor Smithers.

Other academics think pounds 1,000 a year in tuition fees is not enough to have much effect on placid British students. For example, Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, believes the Government's plan will not affect student behaviour, because it doesn't give them much new clout. They won't be able to pay different amounts to reflect differing quality - as they do in the US.

Professor David Robertson, of Liverpool John Moores University, is also sympathetic to that view. But fees will make parents much more discriminating, he says. "As a parent, am I going to want to pay pounds 1,000 for my child to do an HND at Balls Pond Road tech when it costs the same for him or her to study for a degree at Oxford?"


Eighteen months, and still angrily waiting for his degree

Increasing numbers of postgraduates are complaining about their courses - their content, marking or supervision. Experts believe it is no coincidence that postgraduates who have to contribute towards the cost of their degrees are complaining louder than ever.

Liam Sweeney, 28, is one of this army of paying customers with a grievance. After stumping up several thousand pounds in tuition fees for an MPhil at the University of Wales, Cardiff, and having completed a thesis with which his supervisor was satisfied, he finds himself still without his degree 18 months later.

His thesis - on civil service reform 1968-90 - was submitted in the early autumn of 1995. When he handed it in, he claims he was told it would be no more than three months before he was called for a viva examination, where he would be questioned orally on the work by an external examiner. But it took 13 months for him to be summoned for his viva.

"After three months I rang my supervisor," says Sweeney. "He said there was nothing to worry about and that both he and the department were more than satisfied with what I had done. I rang regularly after that. Each time, I was told they had not heard from my external examiner."

Finally, more than a year later, a date was set for the viva and Sweeney was informed that the external examiner objected to a fundamental point in his thesis. He was told to expect a tough viva - and that is what happened. The interview with the external examiner lasted more than an hour. Sweeney was told he would be passed, but only if he made substantial changes. He was also informed that the examiner's reasoning would be laid out in a report to the university three weeks later.

"My supervisor said he had been very severe and that any other examiner would have passed me," explains Sweeney. It was at that point that the postgraduate decided to appeal. At first he was told that wasn't possible. But, after taking advice from an academic outside Cardiff, he realised he could. An appeal was lodged with the university. The external examiner's report did not materialise for five-and-a-half months.

Last week Sweeney heard that his appeal had been dismissed. "It's an awful lot of time and expense for nothing," he says. "I find it hard to understand how the university came to this decision when you consider how long I had to wait after the department had said my thesis was fine."

Sweeney is now working as a warehouseman but hopes to go into accountancy. He knows he is at a great disadvantage in his career until the dispute about his degree is resolved.

A spokesman for the university said: "It's not our practice to comment on individual student cases"