University: I want my money back

UK University tuition fees are in the news again.  Early leaks and rumours suggest that students will be expected to pay around £7,000 a year, up from the current £3,000, which was itself a huge rise on the first £1,000, the original "top-up" fee levied on students, which only started just after I'd graduated myself, a little over ten years ago.

That's an amazing rise.  I started university with a grant of around £700 a year and a "top-flight" bursary (provided to science students with better than AAB A-level grades) of £750 a year.  We've gone from that credit of £1500 a year to a charge of £7,000 a year in just ten years.

Naturally, the Americans, and numerous other countries, will be surprised by our concern.  A mere seven grand a year to attend some of the best universities in the world is a marginal sum, compared to the Ivy League.  Parents in the US start a college fund when their child is born.  The wealthiest parents can pay for the best education, spiced up by a few scholarship places and imported sportsmen.

But education in the UK is different, and proudly so.  For a start, like the health service, it's free.  We recognise that a good education is the basis of our economy, and the principle reason why such a geographically tiny country still has a great international standing.  But in the past ten years, something changed.  University has somehow become a right of passage, to which all are entitled, not just the rich, or smart.  The first I agree with - the second I will take issue with.  Money should not play a role in university attendance.  This is why the new fees can be paid entirely with credit.  But surely educational achievement should have some contribution?

The government aim has been for fifty percent of all school-leavers to attend university.  Fifty percent.  That's about the percentage of pupils at my secondary school who got five A-Cs at GCSE.  And that basically means that you can read, write and count to ten.  Should ALL of these pupils be attending universities?  and if so, what do they hope to achieve?

When you come right down to it, what do UK universities offer?

I would sum it up as the following:

I might also add:

What I think is sad about the above lists is what's missing.  I think many students are out to get 'a degree'.  A piece of paper.  A qualification which will let you claim a higher-paying job.  Employers are almost as much to blame.  We ask for a degree, sometimes a relevant degree, and we check our box on the form.  That is all.

And this works.  Why should I employ someone with a degree over someone without?  Because it's a good indication.
The trouble is that smart people go to university, but university doesn't make people smart.

It's not the training that we're looking for, not the skills that they've learnt.  Just the fact that they went to university gets our box ticked.

What's missing from the lists above is education.  I think university should be a place for people with a real passion for the subject to get together and bash heads.  To discuss ideas, to teach each other the latest trick, to discuss the latest findings.  Maths, physics, literature, film, whatever subject.  As long as you're passionate about it.

I went to university at the University of Warwick, back in 1996.  It's a campus university based just outside Coventry, borrowing it's more prestigious name from the town and castle a few miles further away.  I chose Warwick on two good solid principles: it's a renowned university, and the sun shone on the open day.  There were probably other reasons too, for I also remember being impressed by a young Professor showing us Hot Java in a web browser.

This was 1996.  The Internet was coming of age.  Looking back, this will be viewed as one of the most exciting periods of computer history.

And so, as a (doubtless) spotty teenage youth, I joined up.  I piled all my belongings, including boxes and boxes of computer gear, into my parents' car, and unloaded into my student dorms.  This was a quality establishment.  We had our own rooms, with ensuite bathrooms.  Luxury.

At the time, I'd just come from quite an awkward period in my history, being sixth form.  After five long years of commuting to the best secondary school in the local area by train, and faced with the prospect of doing so for two more years in a suit, I switched to the local, shabby, sixth form down the road.  This one offered Computing and Further Maths too, so my choice was not so bad.   But the trouble was, I knew nobody here.  I'd left the secondary school with no close friends to keep in contact with, and struggled to fit into life in sixth form college.  I'd done the same between primary and secondary schools too, and found that jarring enough.  So I arrived at university without any great social experience, beyond knowing two thousand ways to annoy my two brothers, and with a kind of cabin fever from living at home that made it hard to adapt to different ways of doing things.

My real love and obsession was computers.  Always has been.  My parents are both computer programmers (seriously), so somehow it's in my blood, in my DNA.  In school you'd have found me in the computer room at every lunch break, and for an hour after school.  At home, I'd be transfixed by dial-up bulletin boards (since I couldn't afford an internet subscription).  At sixth form, I'd got a holiday job, and coded a clinical trial management database which I'd then submitted for coursework, getting a huge 95% result.  I played with 3D, with raytracing, with OS/2, with Windows, with DOS, with everything.  I knew what I was doing, and loved doing it.

Arriving at university for that first term was something of a shock.  The computer science lab was full of green-screen terminals running unix.  All the courses for that first year were crushing dull, and reiterated ground we'd covered already.  For some reason, computer science was taught as though you'd not used a computer before.  I wondered if English was taught starting with the alphabet, or if the maths classes were doing hundreds, tens and units.  The lectures weren't hard.  Well, there weren't many of them anyway - I hadn't a single morning lecture in the first term at all.  We were taught "maths for computer science", which turned out to be dry pure maths. After two years of further maths, this isn't what you want to hear.  I looked around for the keen computing lecturers, that would bring me into the department's inner circle, to get involved in real projects.  I found none.  My tutor was the maths lecturer - probably still the most boring man on the planet.

I struggled.  Or rather, I didn't.  I gave up.  I used the computer in my room.  Couldn't even get online, since there was no network or phone in the rooms.  I couldn't even pay to have one installed.  I was offline, except for green screen terminals.  It was pitiful.

By the time of the exams, I was sick of it.  Lectures sucked the fun out of any subject they touched, that wasn't dull enough already.  I wasn't the only one who walked out of the databases course saying "thank god I knew that already".  After locking myself into my room for computing, except for excursions to the union bar, I realised I'd had enough.  I remember walking out of each exam at the earliest possible opportunity.  My reasoning was that the first 30% of the questions were the easiest, you couldn't leave for the first half-hour of each 3-hour exam.  So I'd answer the first third of the questions, get up and go.  It felt so good to go.

After three years of university, I got my degree.  I've ticked your box.  But I failed at it.  I couldn't get interested in the dry dullness.  I must've been hell to live with.  I learned very little.  And I hated crammed bars.

Despite my grants, I had a student loan of £4,000, two interest free student overdrafts of £1,200, and basically no idea of the value of money.

But there were good things.  I kept my holiday job, and was good at it.  I learned that presenting to work colleagues about something you care, was easy.  The red-faced embarrassment of presenting to class disappeared.  While commuting to work, I met a guy on a train who ran a web development company.  Slowly, I learned how the business world worked.

I remember that some of my lecturers were indignant about 'practical' questions.  "When are we ever going to use this?"  we asked.  Apparently we were supposed to be interested in the subject itself, not practical applications.  University was not supposed to be a preparation for the world of work.

So what is university now?  We merged in the polytechnics, and invented degrees in travel & leisure.  We're in a befuddlement of ambitions.  Are we training graduates for business, or offering a stepping stone into research and academia?  Should all qualifications be degrees, and should they all be three years?

We've seen from GCSEs, SATs, 11+, A-Levels and AS-levels, that stability is preferable to endless government tinkering.  And the independence of universities gives that resistance to change.  But I think it's time to answer the single outstanding question:

What is university for?

Once we know that, we can focus on delivering it.  Or, students might decide that it's not for them.  Maybe they're happy to avoid three years of maths, and would rather get straight into web design apprenticeships.  Maybe we don't all need degrees.  Maybe there should be different kinds of degrees.

I left with £6,500 of debt and nothing but a certificate to show for it.  Another £21,000 of debt would have left me far more angry about what little I got for my money.

Students these days must demand a better deal.

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