Viewpoints: Higher fees and value-for-money degrees

image captionIn 2013 29% of first-year students said their course was poor value for money, compared with 16% in 2006

Almost one out of every three first-year students at UK universities says their course provides poor value for money, a study has suggested.

While most students are happy with their course, dissatisfaction has grown since fees rose for English students, according to researchers for Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute.

The study highlights a big variation in teaching time, with students at some universities getting twice as much as those doing the same subject elsewhere. The BBC News website has gathered a range of viewpoints.

Katharine Collins, second-year Childcare Studies student

The course content has been very interesting, but I was expecting a little more one-to-one time with my tutors, a little more guidance. I probably get about 10 minutes a week one-to-one time with a tutor.

I was one of the last students before the fees trebled, but at £3,000 a year, my course is still not cheap. I would like a bit more for my money really.

We have lectures and seminars. Most of the time there are over 20 of us. So we need one-to-one tutor time to make sure we are getting on OK.

We do about four assignments each term, each of about 3,000 words. Sometimes when they teach us generically it's not all that helpful.

We're also supposed to be given written feedback after every assignment, but we had no feedback at all throughout the first year.

We are given our grades about three weeks after we hand the assignments in - but this is just a percentage. There is no feedback on where we have gone wrong or how we might improve.

Earlier this term we were suddenly handed back all our assignments from last year with things written on them. There were some errors, for example with referencing, that I kept making because no-one told me I was doing it wrong.

I want to do postgraduate teacher training once I have finished my third year. I will go somewhere else to do that.

I picked the course because of its reputation and because the prospectus indicated that we would be taught by published writers.

There is a lack of one-to-one teaching. I would like personalised feedback from an expert in my field of writing. Some of the lectures have been quite helpful but they try to cater for too many different styles of writing - for instance if you want to be a poet you might find that the lectures focus too much on the novel.

I think there is too much attention given to sharing our work in workshops and giving each other feedback. I think there should be more time given to actual teaching, rather than on feedback from people who are at a similar level to me.

I don't think I am being taught enough of the craft. University should be more about learning. I could get similar feedback outside university if I got a group of writerly friends together and created a workshop in a local cafe.

University was always something I was open to. Both my parents had gone to Newcastle and had loved it and I was certain that's where I wanted to go.

When I started my A-levels, teachers started asking the inevitable questions: "Which course did I want to study?", "Which university?", "Had I set up my Ucas [Universities and Colleges Admissions Service registration] yet?"

Tuition fees had just gone up and I was still struggling to find a course that I wanted to study. There were thousands to choose from and I was so confused.

After I received my AS-level results, I still hadn't picked what I wanted to do and, although my grades were similar to many of my friends, I was disappointed with them and wasn't sure I wanted to go through endless retakes.

Eventually, after really thinking it through, I realised university simply wasn't the right option for me. There was nothing I really wanted to study and to spend over £50,000 on a course I didn't love, seemed like a complete waste of money.

Whenever I explain my decision to friends or family, they often reply with the same response, that I won't be paid as much as a graduate.

The truth is, having done endless research, most companies and businesses value someone with work experience and ambition as much as they do a graduate.

In fact if anything, I have the potential to be making more money than my friends once they leave university, and I won't have a huge debt to pay off.

I set up Uni's Not For Me because I found there was so little advice and guidance for those trying to make a decision about university.

Schools often don't mention alternatives to uni so it's drummed into students that university is the only acceptable route and often people feel like they're "failing" if they don't go.

My ambition is that my site will provide awareness of all the options available, and tell the stories of people who have gone on to do amazing things and have very successful careers without a degree.

The site is also aimed at teachers and parents to reassure them life can be perfectly OK if university is not part of the equation.

What is clear from this, and other surveys, is that students are demanding more than ever from their universities, particularly with the increase in fees.

With this, comes a need to ensure that prospective students, and often, parents, are getting all the right information about individual courses before they enrol.

Universities have responded to this challenge and have worked hard to increase the amount of information on every course.

New "key information sets" give prospective students standardised information for all undergraduate courses on things like fees, satisfaction rates for the course, course structure and employment prospects for graduates.

While basic information about contact time for individual courses might be useful, attempts to rank courses at different institutions, based often on crude contact time samples, is not helpful or useful for prospective students.

For example, it would be clear that a degree in a subject like history would place more emphasis on independent and guided research, whereas a lab-based subject would place a greater emphasis on direct, structured contact time with lecturers.

The UK university system, one of the strongest in the world, is very diverse and complex and it is difficult to make these sorts of comparisons in such a broad way.

And while there may be occasions when a student finds their course is not right for them, we must not forget that the vast majority of students are satisfied and satisfaction rates across all universities remain high.

The important thing, if a problem occurs, is learning lessons. Universities are acting on responses to the National Student Survey on issues such as providing feedback to students.

So does going to university represent value for money? Despite the difficult economic climate, graduates from UK universities remain highly valued by employers, here and overseas.

Recent official figures confirmed that, on average, degree holders continue to earn considerably more than non-graduates over a working lifetime.

The kinds of skills that higher education provides, the ability to think critically and to analyse and present evidence, are going to be increasingly in demand as our economy continues to shift.

And let us not forget about all the other benefits such as mixing with people from all walks of life and corners of the globe, making life-long friendships, raising expectations and aspirations and developing a range of other skills along the way. It can be really life-changing.

Ella, 16

When I work independently, I feel I have more freedom to develop my ideas and come up with more original viewpoints.

The price of university will still be worth it to get the qualifications necessary for better jobs.

Most of the people who disapprove of going to university have never tried university life so wouldn't know the benefits.

Kieran, 16

If you want a job that needs a degree, then of course it is worth going to university.

It's OK to do independent work, but the interaction of being able to ask your teacher what you are finding difficult would be lost.

I like to be able to ask the teacher questions and have them help me to learn. It would affect my understanding of what I am learning and my overall achievements.

Tyler, 16

Although the cost of university is very high now, I feel as though university is required for gaining a good, well paid job.

People who tell me that university is not worth it, do make me think about the costs and other career options, however it does not change my opinion overall.

Choosing your own way to learn could be very effective.

Tripled tuition fees in England have done little more than replace slashed public funding for universities, so despite all that extra money paid by the students, universities have little scope to make genuine improvements to the student learning experience, and are struggling to keep pace with international competitors.

The 2012-13 World University Rankings presented further evidence that many of our superb universities risk a slow slide into global mediocrity.

The rankings showed some of the UK's most famous university names, Bristol, Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham and Newcastle, sliding down the international league tables, while top universities in countries that are investing in their universities, especially in East Asia, continued a steady march up the rankings.

As students in England increasingly begin to question the value for money they receive for their £9,000 tuition fees, other countries are willing and able to offer attractive alternatives.

Strong campaigns to attract English students to more highly ranked institutions in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Canada have already seen some success.

How long will it be until the steady trickle of British students deserting English universities for better and often cheaper options abroad turns into a flood?

The rationale for surveying students in their first year is highly questionable and the findings take no account of the outcomes of the changing funding regimes to which universities have been subject to in the last seven years.

When tuition fees were increased to £3,000 they were backed by state loans but the primary aim was to provide additional resources to universities. At the same time the government supported a national 'Aim Higher' access and outreach programme, restored maintenance grants to some students and provided institutions with additional funding to help with the costs of teaching part-time students. However, after the 2008 financial crisis there were some cuts to teaching funding which universities were required to manage.

Fast forward to 2012 when fees were tripled, albeit also backed by a state loan, to cover a huge cut in university funding. The part-time institutional premium has also been abolished and universities are now required to use fee income to support a wide range of outreach programmes previously funded by government. In fact the survey confirms that students at modern universities are more likely to study in smaller groups and be taught by academics.

There is no room for complacency but the fact remains that universities have done remarkably well to hold their own bearing in mind the funding roller coaster to which they and students have been subject in recent years.

Government reforms are asking students to think more like consumers, while denying those who are dissatisfied any way of holding their institution to account.

The information given to students and the way it is presented makes it very hard for students to make informed decisions, and universities are often far from transparent about the additional costs of studying.

It is very difficult for a student to transfer from one institution to another, taking their course credits with them, and virtually impossible for a student to get a refund when they've been let down by an institution.

The whole system of... tuition fees sets up unsavoury ideas about education as a financial transaction rather than a collaborative learning process that has value to students and society that extends way beyond the financial value of a degree certificate.

The government needs to undo its shambolic changes to higher education and find a better way for graduates to contribute towards the education system, halting the marketisation of universities that is of no benefit to students or society.

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