The Imperfect University: Students and their Unions – Part II

TIU
Changed days indeed

(As with the previous offering I suspect I’m going to be challenged on much of what follows.)

Part I of these two pieces looked at the changes in the National Union of Students as it almost completely changed its campaign foci to concentrate much more directly on supporting students on local issues shifting from oppositionalism and international policy concerns, occasional leftist posturing to more direct positioning on student experience matters.

Changes in many students’ unions seem to have taken place in parallel to these developments and as universities across the country continue to adapt to the brave new fees-driven world, all are seeking to respond more to student demands as identified through, among other things, the National Student Survey and looking to NUS for support on such matters.

A recent piece in the Huffington Post suggested that at the same time as student activism had been supplanted by ‘lad culture’, students’ unions had failed too:

lad-culture-screen

The decay isn’t only down to students. Student Unions are now anything but ‘Unions’. They are failing to protect the interest of students, nurture a hot bed of intellectual activity or help co-ordinate any meaningful student activism. Today, student unions are just shopping malls designed to extract money from the ‘student market’ and political apathy has made student democracy nothing more than a beautified popularity contest.

Are unions today really just shopping malls? Far from it. Whilst all unions have different characters, strongly conditioned by the local institutional context in which they operate, many have changed their approach in last decade or so from campaigning on external, national and international issues to being much more focused on the direct interests of students in their own institutions. Students’ unions have always had a slightly unusual relationship with their parent institutions as well – arguing and defending their independence fiercely while at the same time being inextricably intertwined with their host, which also provides the largest part of their funding.

A core role of unions is representing the student view to the university. Rather than revolution the consequences of student rebelliousness which ran from 1968 onwards resulted in much stronger representation on various university committees and this principle of representation has been sustained in all universities even across different governance models (within the UK).

However, representation in itself is insufficient. Having student members present at Senate and governing body meetings has arguably allowed universities to believe that this was the full extent of engagement with the union that was necessary. This can result in students’ unions being undervalued and having only superficial engagement with the university, largely confined to pitching up each year to argue for an incremental increase to the block grant. This is no longer adequate.

Another dimension of this lack of genuine engagement is the phenomenon of the naïve indulgence of the less productive examples of student behaviour, demonstrations, occupations and the like. This stems from a misguided and anachronistic 60s liberalism which views student campaigning activity as being just part of growing up (which of course it was for the overwhelmingly middle-class students of that time). However, this is really a failure to see the value and contemporary significance of the students’ union.
nus logo

A similar attitude is often seen in relation to union-run commercial activities, including bars, shops and catering outlets. This can all be happily ignored while such provision delivers good services to students and useful surpluses to the union. However, the last couple of decades have seen major changes in student social and drinking behaviour to which, by and large, students’ unions failed to respond until rather late in the day. The shift in student purchasing to off sales and decline in beer revenues meant that the cash cow, the traditional union bar, quickly turned into a dog and the failure to invest wisely during the good times left many unions exposed. Such services have to be run properly by professional staff. The idea that students should be permitted to “play” at managing services, catering, retail and bars as it is good training for them is just not sustainable, let alone in a time of austerity. Fortunately, many unions do now recognise this.

Beyond representation and some commercial activities, unions have to continue to deliver their other core functions of providing for the wide range of social, political, sporting and cultural student societies and offering necessary support to students on academic, disciplinary and accommodation issues (for example). Universities need to work much more closely with their unions to ensure a joined up, comprehensive, high quality student experience. The issue is not protection of traditional domains, it’s about collaborating to provide the services and facilities students expect. This is not just about shops and bars but covers broader issues including induction, student support, employability, student volunteering and fundraising to name but a few.

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Things aren’t always as straightforward for students’ unions as running shops and bars though. Students’ union officers don’t always know what their members think or indeed choose to represent only a minority opinion as they pursue an overtly political agenda. In addition, they are usually only around for a year, making relationship building something of a challenge. This is where it is crucial to have a much deeper engagement between university staff and those at all levels of the union. A vibrant, democratically active union, with full involvement of students in all fora, from staff:student liaison committees to Senate, and with able and engaged staff working closely with university professional services is much more able to cope with the odd year with a difficult president.

At the same time as the student movement has been reorienting to focus on teaching and learning issues there has been a structural realignment in the governance of students’ unions. The changes arising from the Charities Act, which necessitated separate arrangements from those of the parent university, have legally pushed institutions and Students’ Unions further apart. This makes collaboration and partnership between unions and universities all the more urgent and vital to ensure we have a shared understanding of our contributions to a high quality student experience. Working together is in the mutual interest of unions and universities. It needs to happen at every level, it needs a range of structures to make it happen as well as formal underpinning through some form of meaningful memorandum of agreement. However, there has to be trust, mutual confidence and sharing of expertise too, including in the co-ordination of delivery of effective student services. In addition, clear open communication channels are critical, and not just at times of crisis.

Many students these days really only want to play quidditch

Many students these days really only want to play Quidditch

Too often it seems unions do have too strong a focus on catering for 18 year-old UK full-time undergraduates (there is some pandering to ‘lad culture’) and struggle to adapt to part-time, mature and international student groups. This is linked to the British youth drinking culture, the freshers’ week phenomenon (other countries seem to manage a transition period without an emphasis on alcohol) and sports club initiations (again often drink-fuelled). There are positive cultural features too including major fundraising efforts, lots of volunteering activity and a general commitment to promoting socially responsible behaviour by students. And whilst a student charter, setting out rights and responsibilities may look an appealing prospect in this consumerist age, without proper partnership between the university and the union it is never really going to get past fine words.

Unions and NUS do deserve credit for focusing more on the student experience, starting with this early report back in 2008 which covered everything from accommodation to quality of teaching and from personalization to student finance and employment. More recently NUS has worked with QAA to produce a series of research reports on different dimensions of the student experience. This has inevitably impacted on the approach students’ unions take to working with their members and universities.

The Union that likes to give you more

 

Students’ unions have changed significantly in response to the radically altered higher education environment. although some of these changes are pushing unions and universities apart I believe is essential that we seek to counter this with greater convergence where possible. This depends on universities engaging properly at every level with their unions and recognising how important their contribution is to campus life and the student experience. In return, unions have to continue to engage seriously and consistently and recognise that there is significant common ground here. Whilst there will always be disagreements these should not perturb serious partnership working which is in the interest of the union, students and the university. These relationships were central to the analysis and recommendations Universities and their Unions (ISBN: 0 902683 78 0, LFHE, University of Warwick, 2006 Tom Bell, Paul Greatrix and Claire Horton) which sought to offer a set of pointers, suggestions, observations and comments and help universities and students’ unions to work together a bit better.

Students’ unions are more important and relevant to universities than they have ever been before. This is not because of the passing fancy of government or QAA but because meaningful student engagement is important to vital lively university life and a first rate student learning experience.

 

(Once again huge thanks to Aaron Porter for his extremely helpful comments on a draft of this piece.)

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The Imperfect University: Students and their Unions

TIU

Part I: How much power in the union?

(I suspect I’m going to be challenged on just about every aspect of what follows.)

Students’ unions and the National Union of Students, which recently celebrated its 90th birthday, have a long and distinctive history in UK higher and further education. There have been major shifts in recent years though, in both FE and HE. This piece will focus very much on higher education which is not to say FE isn’t hugely important – it is, and is reflected in the election of the first ever NUS President from FE – but rather is a topic for another day. The character of HE unions has changed significantly in the past decade in particular – whilst always concerned with the representational, support and extra-curricular aspects of student life they are now much more directly interested in and increasingly involved with the core issues of teaching and learning. A clear indication of this is that the National Student Survey (NSS) now includes a specific question on students’ unions. Whilst I think the NSS question itself is not terribly valuable it is symbolically important, signalling the value placed on the students’ union in the context of student satisfaction.

nus logo

I am a big fan of students’ unions and the student movement (as it is sometimes, perhaps rather inaccurately, known). Whilst they can often be challenging and make life difficult for university leaders, they nevertheless have huge amount to contribute to campus life. As an undergraduate at a disaffiliated university back in the 80s I was massively disappointed not to be a member of NUS but nevertheless greatly enjoyed local student unionism. NUS has a fascinating history, one which was largely non-political until the late 1960s when it dropped its non-political stance, and since then has leaned left to a greater or lesser extent. During most of the past 45 years or so though the political dimension of the Union has appeared to be its defining characteristic.

However, that has all changed in the past few years. NUS appears, quite remarkably, to have transformed itself from an organisation where the default activity was a demo and one where national conference and standing orders dictated activity to something which would be almost unrecognisable to those activists from previous decades. Now NUS is seen as a rather effective lobbying body and an organisation which is a sought after partner of government and national HE agencies rather than purely a voice of opposition. A recent piece in the Guardian, which previews a new piece of research by the Leadership Foundation, notes the much closer alignment which now exists between student leaders and university managers.

How did this come about? I honestly don’t know but I suspect that an awful lot is down to a succession of talented presidents and some excellent staff working together to deliver a strategic transformation born out of a realisation that after major defeats on fees a different approach was required in order to secure the union’s future existence. A major review of governance in NUS, which concluded in 2007, although it does not look on the face of it to be a huge departure from previous positions may in fact have been key here.

The mission and vision is perhaps not that surprising although the environmental concern is undoubtedly relatively new and demands for a “quality learning experience” has not appeared on many placards down the years:

 

Our mission

Our mission is to promote, defend and extend the rights of students and to develop and champion strong students’ unions.

Our vision

Our vision is of NUS as a pioneering, innovative and powerful campaigning organisation: the national voice of students.

We will fight barriers to education, empower students to shape both a quality learning experience and the world around them, supporting influential, democratic and well-resourced students’ unions.

Our ethics

NUS and students feel passionately about the environment.

Ethical and Environmental principles are core to our culture. These values underpin all of our work and have done for over 30 years.

 

The Union that keeps on giving

The Union that keeps on giving

In the year I graduated, when Vicky Phillps was President, some of the key issues for NUS were Apartheid, Israel/Palestine (that’s not changed), welfare reform and equality issues.

NUS could not have been further from influencing government on any of these (although this is not to say that contribution to Anti-Apartheid was not significant, it was) but look at where we are now. NUS seems to be a keen supporter of the following:

  • The Key Information Set – a key element of the marketisation of higher education
  • Unistats
  • The Office of the Independent Adjudicator
  • Which? University
  • The new Student Engagement unit
  • The HEFCE-funded Student Green Fund
  • QAA involvement with students as active members of review teams
  • And, perhaps most significantly, the National Student Survey, now with an extra question about Students’ Unions thanks to NUS lobbying.

This support for a government-inspired survey of students would seem on the face of it to be a bit of a surprise but speaking to the Telegraph back in September 2012, Liam Burns, then NUS President said:

We have supported and worked with the NSS since it began in 2005 as a tool for securing improvement to student experience. Although in that time progress has not been as rapid as we would have liked, particularly in areas such as assessment and feedback, results have continued to improve year on year and they must continue to do so.

In addition, NUS is keenly supporting the Office of Fair Trading which has recently undertaken an investigation into alleged unfair terms imposed by universities on students and wider examination of the operation of the market in undergraduate student recruitment.

In all of these cases, it would not be unfair to suggest that the NUS view is closer to that of the current Government than to that of many university vice-chancellors (although they are a diverse bunch). Indeed at times it is indistinguishable and NUS officers these days often look like they are best mates with the Universities Minister and appear to have easy access to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

BFF?

BFF?

This coziness is reinforced by the section of NUS website modestly entitled ‘Our impact on history’:

NUS sits on the boards of HEFCE, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OFFA) and UCAS.

Where there is an advisory board, strategic committee or working group, there is NUS, working alongside the sector to present the views of students and ensure their interests are taken into account.

Students are now intimately engaged in every aspect of quality: students act as peer reviewers for institutional review, and students’ unions are invited to submit a student-written submission as part of evidence submitted on the quality of an institution’s provision.

The Quality Assurance Agency has a student sounding board, and is currently funding projects based within NUS to enhance student engagement in quality enhancement at course level.

The Higher Education Academy has worked with NUS for the last two years, undertaking a major project on student engagement – exploring how students can act to shape their educational environment through provision of feedback and representation.

NUS is also working with HEA to deliver student-led teaching awards at institutions around the UK, helping students to recognise excellence in teaching.

NUS is developing its relationship with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Fearful of the impact on students of the new fees and student support regime, NUS successfully worked with OFFA to ensure students’ unions would be consulted in the creation of institutional access agreements.

 

Beyond these big current policy agenda NUS seems to offer much more in the way of activities in support of students’ unions, their core operations and the training and development of students’ union officers. Moreover its professional staff seems to be much more concerned with developing policies, practice and services which will directly help students rather than any broader political activity.

Not so long ago all of this would have been seen by many NUS members as a betrayal of the organisation and its principles (and no doubt sparked some kind of demonstration or occupation of somewhere). So is student activism dead as a recent piece in the Huffington Post proposed?

Student activism was once a force to be reckoned with. It changed the world, visibly and profoundly. It was the catalysts that lead to the end of the Vietnam War, it pressured governments to finally stop supporting apartheid and it forced the world to start addressing institutionalized racism. But today, in the face of genuine and widely felt grievances, students are impotent and apathetic. Universities are businesses, education is job training and a degree is a holiday.

Not everyone loves NUS

Not everyone loves NUS

Has student political activity been replaced by “lad culture” as this author suggests? No, but there has nevertheless been quite an extraordinary change in the student political arena in a relatively short period of time. (This is not to say that “lad culture” is not an issue nor that it is not being taken seriously as this NUS campaign and recent summit demonstrate.)

Fundamentally it seems to me to be down to a recognition that NUS is there to serve all of its members and represent their interests rather than simply campaign for or against matters determined by a highly politicised executive. A more cynical observer though may suggest that NUS appears to have been at least partially co-opted into successive governments’ higher education agenda and to have been seduced by the BIS “students at the heart of the system” line. Even if this were true though it is undoubtedly a profound shift which has taken place.

Changes in students’ unions seem to have taken place in parallel to these developments and we will look at these in the second part of this piece.

(Enormous thanks to Aaron Porter for his extremely helpful comments on a draft of this piece.)

The Office of Fair Trading targets universities

The OFT is investigating universities’ terms and conditions.

The Office of Fair Trading, apparently at the request of the National Union of Students, has started an investigation into whether some of the sanctions imposed by universities on students, which may prevent them from progressing or graduating if they owe the university money, are unfair in relation to consumer protection legislation:

The OFT has opened an investigation under the Enterprise Act 2002 considering the terms and conditions used by some universities to prevent students from graduating or enrolling onto the next academic year or using university facilities if they owe monies to the university which relate to non-academic debts such as for accommodation or childcare, or if they engage in conduct (unrelated to academic performance) of which the university disapproves. It is considering whether such contract terms and/or practices breach the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and certain other consumer protection legislation.

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As reported in the Independent the NUS is quite keen on this:

The NUS vice president for Welfare Colum McGuire said: “This has been on our radar for a while and we’ve been hoping to get some action taken. We’re really excited for the full investigation.” McQuire continued: “This came to our attention from students and unions across the country.”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It will be particularly important that the OFT gets a clear view on the issue of “non-academic debts” some of which, whilst they may not be explicitly academic in nature, are nevertheless inextricably linked to a student’s whole university experience. The OFT will also want to learn more about the ways in which conduct “unrelated to academic performance” can sometimes have a profound and negative impact on university life and is therefore not merely a matter of disapproval.

Writing in Outlaw.com, Pinsent Masons’ legal blog, Nicola Buchanan is pretty sure that the OFT will find universities’ actions wanting and that we will need to look at alternative approaches:

The OFT will publish initial findings in October and are likely to find the withholding of degrees for non-academic debt unfair. Universities should start planning now, and should take a leaf out of commercial organisations’ books if they are to find new and effective ways to recover non-academic debt.

So we will see where the investigation goes. The cautionary note in all of this though is really “be careful what you wish for” as the alternatives to the current set up may be far less pleasant for all concerned as Gary Attle has observed in Fusion, the Mills and Reeve blog:

We do wonder whether there may be another law at work here, namely the law of unintended consequences. What will be the consequences if universities, as academic communities, are constrained in using self-help measures in appropriate situations to manage their financial responsibilities. Will it be in the interests of students if universities are forced to resort instead to other credit control measures and debt collection procedures like commercial businesses and landlords?

Surely no-one wants to end up here?

£5m for Students’ Green Fund

Big funding for student-led green initiatives.

HEFCE recently announced the launch of the ‘Students’ Green Fund’ which is intended to help students work with their institutions on sustainable development:

NUS will run a single-round bidding competition in summer 2013, to allocate the funding. The funded projects will then receive the funding over two full academic years (2013-14 and 2014-15).

The Students’ Green Fund will encourage local collaborative sustainability initiatives through students’ unions, putting students in the driving seat for sustainability engagement initiatives, as well as supporting them in their role as agents for change.

NUS is determined to create a social norm of sustainability in institutions. The groundwork laid by initiatives such as Student Switch Off in university halls of residence, the sustainable growth programme, Student Eats, and Green Impact, will be strengthened by the Students’ Green Fund.

A handy information video has been developed by NUS:

 

 

Details of the bidding process are on the NUS website. The final deadline for proposals is rapidly approaching and it will be interesting to see who the winners are and what kind of projects are supported. It’s a pretty large sum of money.

Go compare – Which advice to take?

Which? University adds to the university information mix

Last week saw the launch of the new Which? university comparison website. Trailed in the White Paper n June 2011 it offers yet more information to prospective students in what is already a very crowded landscape.

The Which? University website enables comparisons of courses by students by price, A-level entry requirements and graduate starting salaries. There are also ranking lists, based on a poll of students, which rate universities for creativity, political action, nightlife and sportiness, among other things.

 

 

 

Times Higher Education reported on the launch:

Loughborough University is the top university for sports, while the universities of Northumbria and Newcastle, and the University of Liverpool, are judged to have the best nightlife, according to a poll of almost 10,000 students by market research firm YouthSight.

The School for Oriental and African Studies, University of London, ranks the highest for having the strongest political scene.

Students at the University of Oxford are the most happy, based on scores from the 2011 National Student Survey – though the ancient university was ranked equal in this respect with Neath Port Talbot College and Ruskin College, an adult education college in Oxford.

Graduates from the London School of Economics had the highest average starting salary, beginning on £28,968, the site says.

The site was launched at Westminster College by David Willetts, the universities and science minister and Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students.

“Choosing the right course and the right university is an important, and often daunting, decision,” said Mr Willetts.

“I want prospective students to have all relevant information at their disposal.”

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “It’s worrying how many people are making one of the biggest decisions of their lives without proper guidance or advice.

“That’s why we’ve launched Which? University so that people have free access to impartial information and can more easily choose the right course and university for them.”

 

 

I’d agree with this point – there really isn’t enough proper guidance and advice available for prospective students. There is however more than enough information and data out there. Before Which? University arrived there was already a similar site doing a similar job (although it now seems to have been suspended) and bestcourse4me.com offering similar information. Beyond this we have all of the main UK league tables and universities’ own websites and prospectuses to draw on for comparative information. Not to mention the National Student Survey and the new Key Information Set (KIS).

There is no information deficit. As noted in a previous post about the KIS there is huge amount of information available for prospective students. The Minister and other partners in the Which? enterprise, including the National Union of Students, demonstrate a touching faith in the power of information and data and popularity polls to help students make the right decisions. But really we don’t need more course comparison sites. We don’t need more information. Students need high quality professional advice and guidance to make sense of this information and to make the right choices for them. That is the real deficit.

Which? University is not the silver bullet.

 

Yale-NUS – high stakes higher education in Singapore

A lot is riding on the Yale-NUS development

A very upbeat report from the National University of Singapore on progress in the Yale-NUS partnership:

As the first liberal arts college in Singapore offering a proactive education through residential living and learning right here in the heart of Asia, we are breaking ground on multiple dimensions,” the inaugural President of the College said. The ceremony also symbolically lays the foundation for an inspiring and innovative community of learning, he added.

To align with the School’s educational mission, the Yale-NUS campus architecture will highlight the collaborative nature of the venture through the joint expertise of two world-class architects – Singapore’s Forum Architects and US-based Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.

Distinctive features such as the syncopated skyline and special materials derived from Yale architecture are married with Asian courtyard landscapes to meld cultures, traditions and styles of Singapore, America and Southeast Asia. The East-meets-West setting will reflect the openness, energy and optimism of the College’s curriculum.

This residential model builds “nested communities” in the Yale tradition of supporting lifelong learning in liberal arts and science by integrating academic, intellectual, social, athletic and artistic life. Three residential colleges, each conceived as a “social home”, will house students and faculty.

The pioneer batch of Yale-NUS students will begin classes from August 2013 at UTown before the new campus officially opens in 2015. The location of the College on the same site is expected to provide opportunities for Yale-NUS undergraduates to interact with the NUS community in co-curricular, sports, the arts and other social settings.

They will undoubtedly have some impressive buildings when the new campus opens. But will the development really break ground in “multiple dimensions” and will the ambitions of the architecture be mirrored in the academic enterprise? We’ll have to wait and see but, with the extensive media coverage of the new college, you would be forgiven for thinking that Yale-NUS had already opened and had thousands of students enrolled and that no other western university had opened a campus in Asia before. I do hope the new venture works and there is certainly enough money and good will behind it to ensure things do come together. However, the hype surrounding Yale-NUS College could mean that expectations are perhaps unreasonably high. And given the forthright views expressed by Yale faculty about issues from academic freedom in Singapore to the impact on their workloads caused by the need to support the new college it could be an interesting couple of years.

Why Students’ Unions Matter

Students’ unions are important for many reasons

I’ve got a piece in the Times Higher Education about some of the reasons I think students’ unions are important:

Students’ unions have a long and distinctive history in UK higher education, but their character has changed significantly in the past decade.

While they have always been concerned with student representation and support, and with the extracurricular aspects of student life, they are now much more directly interested in – and increasingly involved in – the core issue of teaching and learning.

Following the lead of the National Union of Students, which has displayed a new willingness to work with the government, students unions’ have shifted from a position of general opposition to change (particularly on student finance) and campaigning on international policy matters (often combined with leftist posturing), to arguing for better libraries, improved IT, more class contact and improved feedback on assessed work.

When I was a student many years ago, student unionism was primarily concerned with fighting apartheid, denouncing Margaret Thatcher and supporting the miners. Debate was passionate and it all felt massively important, but unions rarely concerned themselves with day-to-day university life. How times have changed.

And the change is for the better. The full piece is available via Times Higher Education. (Thank you THE for asking me to do the piece.)

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An NUS league table?

Students debate plan for league table of their own

According to Times Higher Education NUS conference was due to discuss a proposal that students should design their own league table:

The motion says that the ranking would address the fact that most existing league tables are determined by newspapers, sponsors and universities, but not by students themselves.

“While we should resist and fight to reverse the commodification and marketisation of higher education, there is an opportunity for NUS to produce the student movement’s own league table, focusing on the bread-and-butter provision that matters most to students,” it says. It adds that the NUS in Australia already produces its own league table, and that this has had “a major impact”.

However, the motion acknowledges that such a development here would not be without risk, because its design and compilation “would be subjected to significant scrutiny” and would need support from students’ unions across the UK.

Don’t know if this motion was passed but it is an interesting idea although it is difficult to imagine how different this league table would be from others in the market. In principle though there is no reason why such a table could not establish itself as a serious competitor. With the right support and intelligent use of the right source data it could fly.

NSS results – just about the same as last year

Good news or bad news?

Not a lot to write home about with very little change but BBC reports that satisfaction rate ‘slips’:

This year’s final year students in England were marginally less happy with their university experience than last year’s leavers, an annual survey shows. The National Student Survey shows 81% were mostly or definitely satisfied with the quality of their course, against 82% last year. In Wales the rating was unchanged, 83%, and in Northern Ireland up one at 84%. Twelve Scottish institutions also took part, achieving the highest overall score of 86%, the same as in 2008.

Pretty positive stuff you’d think but the NUS has a different perspective

NUS president Wes Streeting said: “Tuition fees in England were trebled in 2006, but students have not seen a demonstrable improvement in the quality of their experience. “Universities have a responsibility to deliver substantial improvements in return for the huge increase in income they are receiving from fees.”

nssf

And the Guardian also focuses on the negative:

Almost a fifth – 19% – of final-year students told the National Student Survey they were dissatisfied with or ambivalent about their courses – a rise of 1% on last year.

HEFCE though offers a more positive interpretation and the full details of results.

But overall this is surely a good news story, albeit one that is pretty much the same as in 2008.

Student loans good. Graduate tax not so good

Good piece by Nicholas Barr in the Guardian on the reasons the current loan system is better than the NUS-preferred Graduate Tax:

The bottom line is that we have the best of both worlds. Graduates face what looks like a graduate tax, but one that does not go on for ever. And universities face a system that encourages competition and strengthens university autonomy.

Also includes a helpful reminder of the difference between a system which makes the education free for the student and a credit card debt:

Many people conflate student loans with credit card debt. This is plain wrong. A credit card debt of £20,000 rightly causes parents sleepless nights. Student Loans Company debt is very different – low interest rate, long repayment period, and no repayments when income is low. What parent has sleepless nights over their child’s future tax bills – even though a typical graduate over a full career will pay around £1m in income tax and national insurance contributions? Thus university is free to the student, and graduates face an income-related payroll deduction when they start earning. The government should be loudly cheered for bringing in this system and noisily excoriated for its complete failure to get across to the public that this is how it works.

And he is quite right about the under-promotion of the realities of the system.

VCs protest: what do we want? Higher fees!

When do we want them? Er, as soon as possible really but it is recognised that there might be the tiny problem of electoral arithmetic to contend with, so bad luck everyone.

The BBC has done a survey of a selection of VCs on their fee preferences:

Many universities in England and Wales want a sharp increase in tuition fees, a survey by BBC News has concluded. Two thirds of vice chancellors, speaking anonymously, said they needed to raise fees, suggesting levels of between £4,000 and £20,000 per year. More than half of university heads want students to pay at least £5,000 per year or for there to be no upper limit.

Higher Education Minister David Lammy said there was an “important debate to be had”. The National Union of Students has warned of debts of £32,000 for students if fees rise to £7,000 per year.

There is an important debate to be had on this issue. Universities do need substantially more money to deliver (a) the teaching and learning students deserve and (b) the world leading science base expected by government. Even before the global recession things were looking a bit dodgy on the long term funding front. Now universities are likely to be so far down the pecking order you might expect the Treasury to be arguing for topping up Fred Goodwin’s pension before investing more in higher education. So where else is the money going to come from?