Wednesday’s Child: The Teaching that Students Pay For

The universities minister, Jo Johnson, criticizes the ‘lamentable’ teaching some UK undergraduates receive. He is determined to ‘drive it out’: by subjecting universities to for-profit competition, by letting weak universities go under, and by imposing on everyone another costly and destructive regulatory scheme, the threatened ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’.

Never mind that there is no empirical evidence that bad teaching is pervasive. Never mind that our leading universities compete in a global market against peer institutions that do not waste time on ‘Excellence Frameworks’. Never mind that the best teaching is expensive, and  if there are to be more contact hours, more feedback, and more Nobel laureates in smaller classrooms, someone will need to pay —if not the public, then students.  But another reporting scheme, in which first prize may be permission to raise regulated fees by no more than inflation, will make teaching worse, not better. Hundreds of millions of pounds are already wasted in a national research evaluation scheme whose benefit has never been tested, let alone demonstrated.

Of course none of this is about empirical evidence. The government is worried about optics: ‘It is not at all clear to some students what their tuition fees of £9,000 a year actually pay for…,’ says Johnson.

It varies, but at my university (of which Mr Johnson is actually a graduate) one thing tuition fees do not pay for is the cost of tuition. We subsidize that, by spending our endowment to the tune of something like £8,000 per year per undergraduate. Yet there is no scenario in which the government will allow any university to let tuition fees rise to £20,000 or £30,000 a year. (Nor, in my view, should it.)

What then are students ‘unclear about?’ The answer is obvious. It is unclear to them why they should be paying even £9,000 a year when their counterparts in excellent German or Scots universities are not. It is unclear to them whether they should be going to university at all, since the economy is not producing enough graduate-level jobs for all who graduate.

We could clarify their minds about that without yet more bureaucratic regulation:

(1) They are paying tuition fees because they (mostly, their parents) voted for political parties who think higher education should be paid for privately and not publicly. (I set aside the massive charge on the public purse that will be racked up through unpaid student loans.)

(2) Their degrees are worth less because the economic value of going to university, though still significant, is lower than it used to be.  A degree is in part a ‘positional good’. The more graduates there are, the less valuable it is to be a graduate. And as long as the austerity-cult continues to depress the economy, even the few who graduate from elite universities now compete for fewer good jobs. (I set aside the bullshit jobs created by the regulatory schemes themselves.)

But maybe I oversimplify.  Perhaps the unclarity in students’ minds is of a different kind.  Maybe they are asking, ‘What am I doing here anyway?’ or ‘What’s the point of education if it doesn’t land me a better job?’  If that is a widespread worry then it is a sign, not that university teaching is failing, but that it is succeeding.

2 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Child: The Teaching that Students Pay For

  1. “Of course none of this is about empirical evidence. The government is worried about optics: ‘It is not at all clear to some students what their tuition fees of £9,000 a year actually pay for…,’ says Johnson.

    It varies, but at my university (of which Mr Johnson is actually a graduate) one thing tuition fees do not pay for is the cost of tuition. We subsidize that, by spending our endowment to the tune of something like £8,000 per year per undergraduate. Yet there is no scenario in which the government will allow any university to let tuition fees rise to £20,000 or £30,000 a year.”

    But where does this £20-30,000 figure come from? Even in Oxford and Cambridge tutorials are increasingly 3 to 1, let alone the 10-20 to 1 seminars elsewhere, and increasingly the teaching is being done by graduate students. We pay graduate students what, I don’t know, roughly £30 an hour?, so even with 3:1 that’s £10 per per student per tutorial/seminar, and tutorials/seminars are the bulk of their teaching. Adding that up for one academic year, that’s still hundreds rather than thousands of £s you’re talking about. So there is a perceptible gap between the bulk of the teaching (low paid graduate students) and the bulk of their fees. And this does seem to be something that blogs, students, and even parents, are beginning to pick up on.

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    • 9K + 8K (from endowment) = 17K. And then, as in the U.S. private universities and elsewhere, we need to impute a share of support, physical plant, depreciation, overhead etc. So if tuition fees were to cover the cost of tuition, we would need to be in the Ivy League Range, 20-30K annually. Now here–unlike, interestingly, much of the Ivy League, we do not use graduate students on zero-hours contracts for a significant proportion of undergraduate teaching. (The position may be different elsewhere.). In any event, the cost to the university of an hour’s teaching by a graduate student is not just the hourly rate. What’s more, the Government wants more senior staff teaching, not more graduate students.

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