Government policy sacrifices university education at the altar of public opinion

A recent article in the Guardian from Adrian Chiles appears to encapsulate and reinforce public opinion on universities with ‘English students spend a fortune to go to university. Shouldn’t that buy them more teaching and less partying?’

It appears that he, like many others, sees students with time on their hands and not enough work to do. Yet the reality for an increasing number of students is they are exhausted by having to balance part-time work, commuting, and caring responsibilities with their studies. But the well-off students have fewer worries and indeed find they have more time. This is a serious dilemma for universities trying to retain students and assist those with fewer advantages. Chiles has waded into a quagmire of problems and is ill informed. But he has hit a raw nerve as the government, through the Office for Students, seeks to hold universities to account. The less well off will be hardest hit and the intention may well be to deter them from university in the first place.

The Chiles world.

In contrasting the experience of a UK student with another in Paris, Chiles questions if there is value for money in the UK. The Paris student has full 9am to 6pm days and terms that “add up to nearly 40 weeks a year”. The UK students have shorter terms and “a couple of seminars and a couple of lectures every week”.  But he has fallen into the trap of viewing university through the rose-tinted spectacles of the ‘middle class’.

Despite this, Chiles is right, it is reality in the raw with the well off gaining a considerable time advantage over the disadvantaged who hold down jobs. He is also comparing across arts and humanities teaching. STEM subjects have far greater workloads, simply because they must cover a range of topics in a professional manner. If this is eroded, then the UK and its reputation is in big trouble. But Chiles has also failed to adjust to the reality that many students are working part time to survive. Many of those choosing a STEM pathway are particularly constrained in their time for study.

Government policies on universities and students are skewed by public attitudes: The people speak.

At the end of last month, a meeting organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the UPP Foundation’ discussed in detail the ‘Public attitudes to higher education. What does the evidence tell us?’.  A video recording of the event is available here.

This was a discussion of a recent joint report produced by both organisations, ’Public Attitudes to Higher Education Survey 2022’. Every university VC should look at this and consider the report carefully.

The report was based upon conclusions arising from  a survey of 1,994 adults conducted in 2022 by ‘Public First’. This organisation runs the risk of appearing to have a conflict of interest because of its founders, ex-govt education adviser, Rachel Wolf, and James Frayne,  who was the director of policy at the right wing think tank,  Policy Exchange.  The results might indeed reflect government policy of relegating the importance of student hardship to the basement. However, they are valid results that highlight the uphill struggle that universities face.

The discussion itself mostly centred on the outcome of the survey. However, it was spiced up by the timely introduction of liberal dose of realism. Firstly, from Mark Corver of ‘Data HE’ who starkly reminded those attending that inflation was hammering the ability of universities to meet the aspirations of government. Then from Sunday Blake of ‘Wonkhe’ who described the brutal reality faced by many students on a daily basis. It’s fair to say some delegates were shifting uneasily in their seats.

It would be a great idea for Adrian Chiles and Sunday Blake to meet up to discuss what is really happening.

A paradox in public perception.

UPP Foundation concluded that, “Two thirds of the public in England support the reintroduction of maintenance grants for poorest students, but only 10% of the public think students should be prioritised for help with cost of living”.  This summed up well the paradox of wanting some more support for students, but not seeing it as a priority.

A clear majority acknowledged that universities are important to research and innovation along with the economy. Yet 22% thought, “a university degree is a waste of time”. Then a staggering 58% thought that, “a university degree does not prepare students for the real world”. This included 82% who had not visited a university over the year with over half from the lower social grade (DE) having never visited a university at all. This might explain the views of 47% who think that, ”Academics don’t understand the “real world”. But it was a strange loaded question to ask in the first place. I have met people with no idea of what a university does but still believing that all academics take long holidays at Christmas and Easter and two months in the summer off!  My experience of long hours, sometimes 80 hours per week, and a 2-3 week break in the summer, seems to have been lost in the translation. 

The dangers of forming policy on universities based upon public perception alone lies in those figures. The survey really illustrates how much more needs to be done to inform the public.

Hiding deeper in the data lurks public opinion on support for students.

With 71% agreeing that the “cost of living will deter people from going to university” it seems students must expect greater support from the public.  However, this is immediately tainted by the vast majority (65%) who think students should take out part-time jobs and only 16% thinking they should not have term-time jobs at all.  

It seems hours worked is an issue for some but not for others. Especially the 20% who think students should work over 16 hours per week, with 3% over 25 hours per week.  The questions of course reflect the reality for many students, but it was not asked if this was fair since over 50% don’t need a job at all.

Parental support is not a given.

The variation in what parents can offer in support of their student offspring explains the situation well. The expected parental contribution per student by social grade figures are stark.  32% of those from the lower social grade DE do not expect to make a contribution. This drops to 10% for the higher social grade AB but is still a problem for those students. Of those expecting to make a contribution, 25% from the AB group think this should be over £500 per month, and 1% offering £2500 or more! Down at the other end, the DE group are less generous with 42% offering less than £500 per month and 11% below £100. 

The idea that a university education is a level playing field for all students is shattered in this data.  If the most able are to succeed, instead of the better resourced, then this must be addressed in a coherent policy.

Government policy is to form public opinion.

Government policy doesn’t arise from thin air. It emerges from vested interests in business and public attitudes.  Governments in a democracy tend to act as a mirror of the society that they purport to represent.  If the majority in a society suffers from greed and lack of care for others, then don’t be surprised if the like minded run the country.  Politicians pander to voters simply to ensure re-election and continuity.  The problem arises when governments try to bend public attitudes through selective information and even misinformation. Then, reasonable long term policies are diverted into the bin.

It might come as little surprise to many, who are well informed about the current situation in universities, that there is a lot of misunderstanding amongst the public in general. Seen as a sport for the elite, and out of touch with the rest of the country, it might be expected that there is little sympathy for the crisis facing universities.  Criticism directed at universities by the government is sinking in. They are forming public opinion to suit their agenda. Accusations of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, low value courses, and lack of care for disadvantaged students are spewed out on a regular basis.  Mix this with pride in our best institutions, and their role in technology advances on a world stage, and confusion sets in. You cannot have it both ways. The tragedy is that this will backfire. 

Don’t confuse me with the facts.

To most observers, there appears to be a deliberate blind eye turned to the rising issue of students working longer hours in part-time jobs. Both the government and university managements seem to want the problem to go away.  Three years ago, at a meeting of staff from universities who were charged with helping students, I was told by one, “if they cannot afford to go to university, they shouldn’t go”.   Public opinion appears to have a different idea.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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