Do TV portrayals of university life do more harm than good? Anna Fazackerley reports on what happened when Bristol let the cameras in
With political debates on top-up fees and access to higher education raging, universities have been a hot topic on television for months. But next week, a fly-on-the-wall BBC documentary about Bristol University will attempt to reveal what really goes on in our institutions.
The one-hour programme follows a term in the life of Bristol's students, vice-chancellor, department heads and researchers. One might expect such a film to have its heroes and villains, but it does not appear to take sides.
Instead, it delivers the rather sobering message that students don't have any money, universities don't have any money and everyone at every level is fighting for survival.
The BBC says it chose to film Bristol because it was "one of Britain's most respected universities". This may be true, but last year's media frenzy surrounding accusations that it was guilty of "social engineering" through its admittance policy must have made it a tempting candidate.
Barry Taylor, the university's communications and marketing director who negotiated with the television production company, says he was very conscious of the risks of inviting in the cameras. While the producer assured him that the programme would not be a sensational expose, the university had to take this on trust since it had no power of editorial veto. "There was a considerable degree of concern about whether this was a wise idea," Taylor admits. "Some sections of the media behaved abominably towards Bristol last year."
Despite the risks, Bristol decided that the documentary was an opportunity to defend its record on the thorny issue of widening participation. "Last year, it was very difficult to get across (the point) that considering people with lower grades than the norm is not dumbing down, it is about identifying students with potential," Taylor says. One journalist from a major tabloid newspaper told him that it was pointless explaining the subtleties of Bristol's admissions procedure because the paper wasn't interested. "The story had already been decided," he says.
In the event, top-up fees, not widening participation, dominate the programme. But we do see the veterinary science department interviewing students from both ends of the school spectrum. Pointedly, the well-spoken grammar school boy with a dazzling array of A grades is offered a place without hesitation. (We are left to wonder about the fate of the more bubbly, yet terrified girl from a comprehensive school.) Taylor hopes that the message about widening participation will get through. "It's about treating people as individuals and not putting them into categories," he insists.
Overall, the programme focuses on political rather than personal issues and, as such, differs from previous university documentaries, such as the Channel 4 series on St Hilda's College, Oxford, which followed six students over three years. (Had Bristol consulted some of that programme's subjects, it might have reconsidered its decision.) Ruth Hunt, one of the St Hilda's students, says the end product was not at all what she anticipated, describing it as "a series of pictures when it could have been an analysis". Alongside the inevitable punting scenes, viewers witnessed some fairly personal traumas.
Hunt, who now works for the higher education Equality Challenge Unit, came out as a lesbian in the fifth episode and was disappointed when this particular incident was cut at the last minute. The experience left her unconvinced about the wisdom of taking part in student documentaries. "To be involved in a project like that you need a lot of judgement," she comments. "And who at 18 has a lot of judgement?"
However, it appears that the Bristol students had a more positive experience. Most time is spent following Dominique, a first-year drama student who is so swamped trying to juggle the demands of her course with a lot of late-night waitressing that she has little time for personal dramas.
"I got a £990 student loan last week," she says to camera.
"I have £860 to go out for my accommodation... So I have to get a job to survive."
Then there is Mark Horton, the stereotypically tweed-jacketed head of the archaeology department, seen leaping about enthusiastically in front of sixth-form students on a "taster" field trip. But watching the new students coming in "full of expectation" at the start of term, he is less upbeat.
"They arrive and actually find we don't have anything. The library is empty of books, and the buildings are falling down," he says.
Life only gets harder for Horton as the term progresses. In a struggle to make his small department more viable, he pushes for an unpopular merger with the anthropology department. After many tense departmental meetings, the controversial change is brought in - but Horton is out. He is not re-elected as head of department.
He tells the camera that he will be retreating to research masks in Zanzibar instead. "I know it is utterly obscure, but it'll be a long, long way away, and all the political intrigues will be way behind me," he says.
It's a very personal disappointment to act out on national television, but Horton, who has not yet seen the programme, has no regrets. "Life's too short and these things happen," he says. But he adds: "The job of a head of department is almost impossible. He is expected to be an administrator, a manager and a leader. These three roles will always be in conflict."
If the film paints a somewhat bleak picture of university life, Horton feels that this is not altogether bad. "We have to see students increasingly as customers who are paying a large amount of money to participate in university. That means they need to see there is not enough money in the system," he says. He describes the documentary as an exercise in "managing expectations".
But both Taylor and Horton hope that the more positive side of university life will also come through in the film. Taylor watched the final version nervously in the vice-chancellor's office recently and is not displeased.
"The film is no whitewash, but we hope it will show why we are happy to work here," he says. "An honest portrayal of the university held no fear for us."
University Challenged: A Term in the Life of Bristol University will be shown on BBC Four on April 20.