Was it worth the work?

Absent tutors and crashing computers dogged Anthea Gerrie's university years. Now the university has done badly in the league tables, she asks what her degree is worth
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The Independent Online
AS I trod the boards of the Barbican, capped and gowned, to collect my 2:1 (BA Hons - fine art with film history) from the University of East London last month, I experienced the sinking feeling that had dogged my previous three years as a student. Had I obtained a degree that was worth having?

UEL has just been named and shamed as being at the top of Britain's drop- out league: a shocking 36 per cent of its students do not complete their degrees. I did finish mine, but only by biting back rancour about absent tutors, sub-standard facilities, a whole course offered but never delivered.

I stayed, tempted by the offer of sexy courses such as film history and digital imaging. It was only in my final year that I discovered that enrolment on such courses, designed to boost falling recruitment, was no guarantee that teaching would actually take place.

The writing was on the wall in year one. My tutor was persistently unavailable, busy writing a brave new graphic fine art course proposal to lure budding computer artists.

A research student with good credentials was taken on, and those of us still wielding paintbrushes were encouraged to attend a dazzling demonstration of what we might achieve with a mouse.

That, I decided, was to be my speciality, and I was duly enrolled in a digital imaging course - only to find out, halfway towards finals, that no tuition was forthcoming. The research student told us that he was not there to teach and insisted that the one good computer was reserved for his personal use; the tutor assigned to me did not know the program I was using, although it was the industry standard; and the technician spent most of his time bitterly trying to deal with old, insufficiently powerful, constantly crashing computers.

Worse, tuition and proper facilities were available at another UEL department miles away with a rating of excellence for teaching.

Within months, that building was occupied as a protest by dozens of graphic fine art students who, like me, had been lured in with the promise of a fast track to hi-tech knowledge that there was neither the expertise nor resources to deliver on our campus.

Another grievance was with the visual theory courses that all students were required to complete. Being forced to watch movies on tiny television monitors connected to clapped-out VCRs in a film department with no dedicated projection room paled beside the advent of the lecturer's absence through illness for several weeks; they refused to provide a substitute. Lack of money was cited.

This occupation followed a 15-day sit-in the previous year, provoked by 80 compulsory teaching redundancies. Neither demonstration appears to have produced anything more than rhetoric.

Offering courses, even if they cannot be delivered, appears to be the cynical approach at UEL and perhaps others with a high drop-out rate. Such universities take in a high proportion of mature students who have had to work their way through college; for us time is money.

In my own case, tutorial support was reduced in my final year to a tutor employed only one day a week, until mid-afternoon. Neither tutorials nor seminars were available in film history, greatly reducing the richness of the learning experience, and my studio space was slashed so drastically that I could not view my year's body of work at one time to select for my degree show.

The shortfall of my expectations is such that I am contemplating suing UEL for wasting my time and failing to fulfil its obligations - and now there is an additional grievance.

My "good" degree is surely as good as worthless when it comes from a university shamed in the league tables.


MS GERRIE does not mention the issues she raises have already been through the formal complaints process of the university. Many of her complaints arise from her attempts to change course and take a module that was not formally taught in the semester she wished to take it - staff went out of their way to accommodate her. The School of Art & Design has had substantial recent investment in both staffing and equipment and has now moved to a state-of-the-art campus in Docklands.

All the school's courses are subject to quality assurance procedures, including annual monitoring, subject review, and oversight by External Examiners.

The university league tables show a very strong positive correlation between proportion of students not completing and proportion of students who are mature and/or who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. UEL has amongst the highest figures for both.

It is ironic that a university that has made such efforts to widen participation and include students from both under-represented social groups and mature backgrounds should find itself coming under such heavy criticism from someone who has benefited directly from this very policy.

Professor Chris Ellis

Assistant Vice-chancellor (Quality Assurance)

University of East London