Higher Education: In the Pursuit of Excellence?

A Freedom of Information request by the BBC has found that more than 20,000 students complained to their universities last year. An increase of 10% on the year before, the findings have been welcomed by Universities Minister, David Willets, who believes that students are demanding more for their £9,000 a year fee. As fraught with tension as a Birmingham school governors’ meeting, university tuition fees have long been a contentious issue: they have caused, the now infamous, protests on the streets of London, and have contributed to the rise (remember Cleggmania?) and fall of Nick Clegg, who in 2010 signed a pledge to block any rise in tuition fees, before performing a rather stunning volte-face just in time for the door of his ministerial car to close. Students, now kettled by the burden of £9,000 fees, ‘see themselves more as consumers than they used to’, according to Rob Behrans, an independent adjudicator for higher education. He adds, ‘they want to get the best degree they can get’. It is this, somewhat facile, argument that seems to have been accepted as a suitable explanation for the growing malaise among students. And yet, unlike crotchety pensioners bemoaning the cost of a second class stamp, the students interviewed by the BBC did not mention the growing cost of their courses: what worries them is that their studies will leave them unprepared, and unable, to get a foot on the career ladder. Funding cuts to universities, announced in 2011, have hit newer, teaching-focused institutions especially hard, resulting in a notable reduction in staff numbers. This has led to decreased contact time, a move towards online lectures, and an increase in ‘self-study’ (a.k.a. a good time to watch Murder, She Wrote). To make up for this funding shortfall, universities have adopted proactive, extravagant marketing campaigns, leading them to be accused of a ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em short’ approach, with the reality not living up to the promise of the glossy brochures. Mr Willets is right in his assertion that it is encouraging to learn that students are concerned about their education. It is also comforting to know that there is an ombudsman to assess the concerns of disgruntled students. But what about those who finish their studies ill-equipped for the world of work? It may, more than ever, be necessary for students to look to extra-curricular activities to gain the required skills to get their first career break. If students want to increase their desirability to future employers, they should look to acquire experience outside the traditional realms of academia. Similarly, if employers want to ensure that the next crop of university leavers be prepared to face the challenges of a graduate role, it is up to them to offer work experience opportunities, such as internships (preferably paid ones, but that’s a blog topic of its own) to supplement their studies. For some students, higher education may not be the silver bullet it once was, but with employers increasingly keen to see examples of achievements outside the sphere of education, their dream job may be more obtainable than they think. Are you a driven student looking to gain valuable work experience in a challenging, stimulating sector? We are offering roles in our research team. You will have exposure to different functions of the business and be involved in a range of projects: research; press and social media monitoring; global mapping of markets; database cleansing.

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