What more do you want?

With the advent of top-up fees, students will need more than grotty bedsits and run-down lecture halls. Lucy Hodges reveals how universities are responding
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The Independent Online

Thirty years ago, students made do with single rooms, a chilly loo, a bathroom down the corridor and a socket in the wall for a kettle. Today, they demand double beds, ensuite bathrooms, computer and internet access, a TV aerial socket and plenty of storage space. Twenty-first century undergraduates have high expectations of material comfort. With the advent of the flat fee and the prospect of the £3,000-a-year top-up fee, those expectations could increase, some vice-chancellors believe. "Top-up fees have given an extra edge to our thinking about what students require," says Professor Stephen Hill, the principal of Royal Holloway, London. "It has accelerated something we were doing already. We want our students to feel that they're in very high quality accommodation, that the student services are good and that the campus as a whole is a pleasure to be in."

Students arriving this year are able to move into hotel-style accommodation on Royal Holloway's 120-acre, leafy Surrey campus. The college has two new halls containing 570 self-catering rooms, each of which has a double bed and a walk-in shower. At £87 a week, the rooms are not cheap, especially as they come without meals. But the students love them and demand has been high. Other universities are working equally hard to improve the student experience of university life. Some are concentrating on burnishing the teaching, others on giving undergraduates a decent student centre containing the student union, bar and cafeteria.

The University of Plymouth has been extending the library and is about to improve the water sports activities so that students can go sailing in their leisure time. "And we have plans with the city council for a big development containing an Olympic-size swimming pool, playing fields and sports halls," says Professor Roland Levinsky, the vice-chancellor. Some institutions are going even further. Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication is planning to move from its present site in sleepy Chislehurst, Kent, to a gritty new urban building in Greenwich, as befits its ambition to be a college at the cutting-edge of courses in fashion, graphics and broadcasting. It hopes to treble in size from 1000 to 3,000 students. "We can't fulfil our mission in Chislehurst," says Professor Robin Baker, the principal. "And we're looking to provide a more customer-led education."

Top-up fees of £3,000 a year are expected to be levied by all higher education institutions for virtually all undergraduate courses. The competition will come in the bursaries that are offered to entice students in, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some universities and colleges will be spending the majority of their top-up fee income on these bursaries. At the University of Kent, the vice-chancellor Professor David Melville decided, with his colleagues, that they should spend the new money on things that students would notice, such as upgrading the lecture theatres. The university expects an income of £10m a year from student fees. "£1m could produce quite a big change in the infrastructure," says Professor Melville.

Kent will also be speeding up a programme to improve student and sports facilities. In the West Country, the University of Exeter has estimated that it will make £2m annually from top-up fees. That money will be used to pay back a loan it has taken out for a £33m investment programme on campus to improve student life. A new family centre is being built for students with small children, the student union, bar and cafeteria are being refurbished, and there will be a new £1.5m tennis centre. "We are going to be putting the fee income back into what we call 'the Exeter experience'," says Professor Steve Smith, the vice-chancellor. Exeter is also looking at its staff/student ratio, which currently stands at 15:1. Professor Smith hopes to bring some relief by recruiting more staff for one school that has too many students.

Universities are also shelling out on market research to find out what it is that students want. One is Anglia Polytechnic University (APU), which is investigating what potential students will require as a result of paying more. Another is the University of Lincoln. But Professor David Chiddick, Lincoln's vice-chancellor, has already decided that the university needs a new student centre, complete with a bar and cafeteria. "Top-up fees are focusing our minds," he says. APU has a new campus opening in the middle of Chelmsford containing a new sports hall and a new student facilities building. University College Winchester, which hopes to become a full-blown university before too long, is investing in a student centre, too.

The University of Luton has just put £5.5m into a new media arts centre opened by Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC. "We are well aware that students will be more demanding when they are paying fees so we are investing substantially in the infrastructure of the university," says Professor Les Ebdon, Luton's vice-chancellor.

Not everyone accepts the argument that student expectations will increase. Peter Knight, the vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, believes that because students already pay fees, we are in a welcome consumerist culture now. And Roy Newson, the marketing director of APU, thinks that, because top-up fees will be paid after graduation and when the individual is earning, they will be less of an issue for students than the current flat-rate fee, which is paid up front. Whatever the interpretation, the fact is that a major campaign of building and upgrading is going on at UK universities. For all the gnashing of teeth about top-up fees, it may be that we will look back on the early 21st century as a golden age for British universities, when they awoke from decades of complacency and threw themselves into new efforts to raise funds and give students a better deal.

'WE TOLD THE COLLEGE WE WANTED DOUBLE BEDS'

Kirsty Marshall, 20, is president of the student union at Royal Holloway and is living in one of the rooms in a new hall of residence, complete with double bed, walk-in shower, lifts that speak and stylish kitchens.

"It may seem a little bit expensive paying £87 a week for a room but it's lovely living here. The college asked the students what we would like and we said we would like double beds. They give you a bit more room. Sometimes single beds are a bit small. A double bed means you can lie on your bed and study and watch TV at the same time. We have electronic cards, like you have in hotels, for getting into our rooms. There is a little box inside your room that you put it into. It also works the electricity. The ensuite bathroom is gorgeous, all tiled and with a button on the showers that you can press to make sure you don't burn yourself. And there is tons of storage space. The bed lifts up so that you can store stuff underneath and there is storage space too above the door."

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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