Leeds Met – £8.5 fees and the future

Yesterday Leeds Met announced that from 2012 it intends to charge £8,500 per year in tuition fees for new undergraduate full time students. http://bit.ly/frCjcm

Leeds Met has gone from the lowest charging university in England to potentially one of the most expensive in less than 3 years. It is certainly the first post ’92 university to announce fees of this level.

As a bit of background Leeds Met reacted to top up fees in ’05 by advocating a lower fee level and relying on economies of scale to make up the costs. To put this into context it is one of the UK’s largest universities and relies on courses, for example business studies, that can take on vast numbers of students and cost very little to teach, as steady income streams. Big courses costing little to teach and charging less make as much as small courses charging more.

The type of students coming to Leeds Met are also relevant, mature and part time students outnumber ‘traditional 18-21 undergraduates’ by about three to one. It’s a question of the chicken and the egg, did these students come to Leeds Met because of the lower fees or did the university cater to them?

Theoretically this could have panned out and Leeds Met could have had an enviable market position as a widening access university. Applications boomed (and continue to) and the university was for some courses turning away tens of students to every one acceptance. What was not factored in was the successive government cuts to higher education without funding reform over the past two governments.

In some sense it’s unfair to say to the university “you should have known better” – no one could realistically have predicted the UK’s roller coaster ride of a higher education funding environment from 2005 onwards so in 2008 with a multimillion pound deficit Leeds Met announced its intention to charge the full fee (£3k+) from 2011 onwards.

The argument at the time was that it had been a poor decision to voluntarily forgo income in the first place and that the university had in fact been neglecting students by doing so. In some ways this is a sound argument, if you accept the premise that students should pay, up front (with loans, etc) or at all.

However regardless of the fairground attraction that was Leeds Met circa ’09 to students, past present and future, this flip flop on fee policy represented somewhat of an admission by the university that it acknowledged its inability manage its own finances in the long term and more importantly its failure to plan for the future needs of students. It was also a dangerous step away from the ideas of widening participation and inclusivity which shaped the the university so much from its brand to its curriculum.

This was not all, the model the university relied on: big courses, high student to staff ratios comes with inherent problems. Low student satisfaction, high attrition and students having a strong sense of isolation and detachment from their student experience.

The university from ’09 onwards made a valiant attempt to redress the issues and as a result the university made exceptional moves up league tables, going up 11 places in the National Student Survey for example.

So this sets the scene for yesterday’s announcement. A history of low fees and widening access, big courses and students from non traditional backgrounds, low satisfaction and a sense of students not being in control of the education service that was being delivered to them.

Leeds Met announced that as a result of the governments plans for higher education funding it will charge £8,500 a year tuition fees for full time undergraduates from 2012.  To place this in context Oxford and Cambridge, two of the best universities in the world will be charging only £500 more at £9k.

This shift from economies of scale, widening access and inclusivity to the upper echelons of the planned HE market is startling and frankly mystifying. The university is undoubtedly shifting away from our typical student – 40 years old plus, two kids at home an hour commute away, part time and studying a subject allied to medicine.

This begs a number of questions…

Who is it looking to attract? What will this mean for the provision – an end to sports science and speech and language therapy?

For a university that has been unable to predict its market, anticipate or react to student demand or the pressures of the changing higher education environment the words of the Quality Assurance Agency’s disappointing ’09 report are left ringing in our ears, I certainly have limited confidence in Leeds Met’s “future management of academic standards”.

Although of course the response will be “that with greater resources a higher quality service can be offered” which we know to be untrue, quality did not improve anywhere in the sector as a result of the introduction of top up fees which were a key test for this proposition.

I have the luxury of hindsight in some respects. I pay the lower £2k fees and although at the time of writing I am a full time undergraduate student at Leeds Met I will be graduating this summer. I was also Leeds Met Students’ Union’s Associate President Education from ’08 to ’10 and a member of Leeds Met’s Board of Governors so I’m partial to a perspective that others might not be. I believe that the university is making some moves in the right direction but this placement of itself in the top tier of the new market is a mistake. It will not be able to compete with Oxford. Full stop. The response will be “we make no attempt to compete with Oxford” but my reply to that is, the only thing that prospective students will look for when they google ‘Leeds Met’ is the fee level and that is what they will see, the university may not intend it but that’s what they’ve got, perception is everything.

This announcement has made national news so it’s probably too late to control the story or reverse the decision, prospective students from non traditional families have seen the new fees and it’s put them off. They’ve probably put their Leeds Met prospectuses in the bin already.

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NUS – uniformity is strength…?

First a bit of house keeping, I’m sorry I’ve not kept willonline as up to day as I’d have liked. It’s the final semester of my final year at University so the stakes are high. I’ve come to regard my computer as my oppressor and have lost that liberating feeling I used to get from writing!

So, I wanted to jot down some thoughts on the sudden barrage of NUS elections related gossip, rumours and in amongst it all, actual interesting material that’s been going around.

First of all I am sorry to see Aaron Porter go, I think he’s done a good job and was an excellent Vice President Higher Education before that. I don’t envy him in the slightest, I can’t think of a more stressful and at times frustrating job. I’ll be the first to say that the high points of his time as President have been very high indeed.

Frankly, I’m pleased to see such a wide variety of people standing for the positions but I don’t think it goes nearly far enough. I’m always slightly disappointed when everyone runs for President too, it seems the least thematic of the positions and I get the impression many of the candidates simply want it for the power (and prestige) and I am always wary of anyone who wants power.

The blogosphere, Facebook and twitter abound with ‘vote for XXX’ or ‘So and so for President!’ pages which gives you a fair indication of the field to date, surely more will come out though. The variety so far is not discouraging, but still represents quite a limited segment of the student population. Now note that I didn’t say ‘a limited segment of the student movement’ because in fact the candidates usually do represent the movement accurately, the two terms have become dangerously conflated, perhaps in an attempt to improve the image we project to the outside world and stakeholders. The problem may lie in the fact that the movement doesn’t always represent the population, although we’ve seen an encouraging move away from that in the national demos over the past few months.

Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be a committee member in NUS but I think we fall down by way of two things: 1) a motivation bias, the students who actually want to shape NUS enough usually manage to find a way to do so, it’s the students who don’t have the support networks I worry about, and 2) Students’ Unions are the gatekeepers to NUS and if they don’t allow, promote and encourage a broad range of people to get involved, stand for election as a delegate and a range of other activity then NUS Conference which elects our leadership has a limited stock of people to ‘choose’ from.

Some people might be afraid of anyone outside the ‘left and lefter’ sphere which runs NUS but are we making a mistake in shutting the doors to anyone outside of the cosy circle? I truly believe that a greater plurality of opinion could only serve to make us stronger. When we agreed it would be more passionate and more deeply felt, when we disagreed it would simply be a case of tolerated dissent, as in any liberal society. If we truly had people from all parts, political, social, cultural, of the 7 million member population we could claim more legitimacy and a greater sense of unity. Have we forgotten that unity is strength already? Surely if the spectrum of leaders we follow have views that converge on the most important issues (higher education funding etc) and diverge on those less critical that could only serve to broaden our impact, our appearance of unity and our sense of oneness?

What’s the worst that could happen? We’ve had terrible leaders before and NUS didn’t implode. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we encourage radical fringes to throw themselves into the fray, NUS is still a private members club and so reserves the right to determine its values and drivers, but broadening the field from the very very few who perform the astonishing balancing act that is the Block of 15 for long enough to become popular without annoying one couldn’t hurt.

I want to finish off by saying I wish every candidate the very best in the elections and look forward to seeing them at Conference. I place my trust in the delegates to choose the very best people for the job and elect us leaders we can be proud of.

International and or Mature students – walk a mile in their shoes.

I’ve always liked that joke – you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes, then at least you’re a mile away and have his shoes.

It’s a funny take on the idea that you should always look at things from another person’s point of view. This is important, I think we’ve become desensitised to tragedy in lots of ways. I don’t think people get enough Vitamin E – Vitamin Empathy. Think of all the situations where a faceless electricity company (just an example)  shafts you, but you know that if you could just talk to a person you could straighten out the mess you’re in. Or when you see stuff about disasters on the news, and you know you should feel bad, you know you should be reaching for your debit card, but you don’t. You change the channel.

I have to make a confession. I’m one of those people who struggles to care – to the point at which I strap on my holster and take the law into my own hands – about the trials and tribulations of other people. I’m not a total robot, of course I still care and work hard to make the lives of the people I love easier etc. In fact, the only reason I am attracted to politics is that it seems to most effective way of making the most number of peoples’ lives better. But I will admit I change the channel on DEC appeals convincing myself I already give enough money to charity as it is. That make me sound callous and uncaring but my take on it is that looking after one person is hard enough as it is and that if I’m to spend my time doing it for someone else, they better be my kid and grow up to be a neurosurgeon.

I want to return to the idea of understanding where someone else is coming from, the shoe exchange idea. I’m going to place this in a University context, I’m always more comfortable in that situation given my background.

International and Mature students are a wildcard in the student cohort. They aren’t students Universities are traditionally built to serve (with notable exceptions like the Open University) it’s like repurposing a golf cart to work as a bus for school children. It might work, but not well.  They can tell you that it’s not working too. Being treated as a second class citizen and (in the case of International Students) paying 3-4x the fees of a home student, for the privilege. As for mature students the sense of isolation and ‘not fitting in’ can be intense. Much of academia works on the basis of being judged or reviewed by your peers, do you really think a  lower middle class 30 something mother of two from Leeds, let’s call her Figure A, is a peer to a 18 year old young adult from an upper middle class family from London (Figure B)? Really?

Maybe we should insist that the latter takes a sensitivity class about the former. Or that we give Figure A  a 10% grade boost to compensate? Even worse, how about everyone else in the class gets a 10% grade deduction?

…Or maybe we should put Figure B, in Figure A’s shoes?

At this point I’d like to reveal myself as the model for Figure B. I took some time out of University to work for my Union so, after starting in 2006 (it being 2010 now) I still haven’t  graduated. My time in the Union led to many situations where I had to work in the best interests of people I didn’t know or understand. You can survey and focus group all you want but without actual, concrete experiences you’re just making informed guesses much of the time.

At aged 22 I took a semester at the University of California, Berkeley, and it wasn’t until a good friend of mine reminded me, but actually, I was a mature, international student myself. Despite having English as my mother tongue and being used to certain aspects of the American culture I was essentially still in the same situation as students from India or Taiwan or Germany and, for want of a better phrase, in at the deep end. Bewilderment became the emotion de jour. From academic cultures and infrastructure to everyday stuff like buying laundry detergent it is incredibly tiring and frustrating working out and thinking out every action and it’s reaction. The absence of any background information to a town you’re staying in leaves you feeling like you’re lost, physically. Not that the University didn’t try hard, but the history of Berkeley wasn’t what I was looking for. So, why did the ATMs keep charging me to take out money? Where could I buy a stamp? What time do supermarkets close? Where could I find running shoes? How does tipping work? Why do the buses sometimes run on schedule and sometimes not? Back in Leeds or London these would be hardwired into my cultural psyche. You grow up with a Tube map tattooed onto your fore arm and a rough idea of how much things cost comes as standard. I imagine I had it considerably easier than many students from countries with very few or no cultural and historical links to the USA. Riding public transport became an exhausting exercise in constant vigilance against homeless people, missing my stop or getting on the wrong train. The energy exerted in acclimatising to a new culture was immense, I found myself tucked up in bed by 9pm most nights in the first three weeks. I have now come with a deep and profound respect for students, particularly those from what we might consider non traditional backgrounds, who go to other countries, especially where there is a language barrier, to study.

They take on so many trials, not just in learning in their chosen field but also learning English, academic and conversational, as well as acclimatising to the new surroundings, making new friends, occasionally getting a job, seriously…. are they superman or something? I could barely do half those things and I was working beyond maximum capacity.

The question of capacity seems to be the answer, we should be building international and mature students’ capacity to be effective. We should be giving them the tools to navigate an increasingly complex (often different to that they are used to) academic and cultural world. We shouldn’t be patronising, in fact respect is a key part of that relationship, but Universities (and of course Students’ Unions) should be in a position to offer (or enable or facilitate) another layer of guidance that goes beyond a handbook or a freshers fair.

Now we come to the point where I should be suggesting what that is, but in fact I’m unsure myself. If you were to ask me how it might best be done I would say as a natural, gradual process through friends and colleagues. This capacity should be built with the willing help of people we know and like. It shouldn’t be done by an administrator behind a desk or a student officer with 30,000 other students to worry about. It should be personal and experiential. The best way to come to understand the academic and cultural traditions and norms of a University or a city should be by experiencing it with friends who are willing to explain what things are, how things work, and where you can buy laundry detergent.