Parallel lives

March 9, 2007

An academic and his undergraduate son at the same university offer different perspectives on an issue. This month: customer relations

The father

It all started getting weird when we discovered that we had customers.

Before that, the more naive factions of the humble profession of lecturer clung to the notion that we had students - impressionable young things who would learn profound truths from the treatise that we declaimed in some quasi-classical manner before the adoring, aspiring crowd.

Well, the crowd is still there - although I notice that it has thinned out a bit since the start of term. Either they can't face seeing me at that bizarre hour on a Monday morning or they are attending some alternative venue where the majority can get better news about their fitness for their chosen profession.

Since they began paying real money there has been a marked change in the atmosphere. You can't cancel the odd session here and there on a whim without questions being asked at the Staff-Student Committee. They are seeking value for their money - which is where the fun starts.

Our customers get to generate feedback as part of our carefully crafted quality process, and this week saw the arrival of the so-called Happy Sheets - although they are called many other things in private.

I'm looking at mine now, courtesy of the 38 per cent of candidates who chose to complete the survey. I get marked between one and five on the quality of my teaching. My average grade is OK - well, it's fairly average, but not a disaster. It is the distribution of marks that worries me most.

Some people - not many, but some - have given me a five: top marks.

These can only be from the crew with the mad, staring eyes who always sit in the front row and write down every word I say. The ones who always, ALWAYS, come up and ask a mind-numbingly surreal question at the end, when I'm trying to pack up and get out the door. They agree with me all the time, even when I tell them that their job is to find fault with my argument.

About the same number have given me a one - although I bet they looked damn hard for a zero box first. They are the ones in the back row who think you can't see the pages of a newspaper being turned just because they are doing it slowly, the ones - I am ashamed to say - who are far more talented, popular, inspired and generally together than me. They are the ones who will be at the top of their career in a very few years, when I am retrieving trolleys from the supermarket car park in the rain.

Still, it's all about value for money and customer care, I suppose. My role, in their eyes, is probably something akin to court jester, which, I guess, is some consolation. I don't resent their intellect - it's just the knowledge that they have seen through me that hurts.

The son

This month we delve into the murky depths of student finance. The basic idea of this is to work out whether my £3,000 in tuition fees is actually worth it.

So I thought I'd see how much I'm paying by the hour. My course has an average of seven contact hours per week. The year lasts roughly 30 weeks. That comes to about £15 per hour, which is about right for paying a lecturer. Or it would be if I were getting one-to-one tuition.

However, at my hallowed hall of learning I get precisely no hours of one-to-one, three hours of one to 14, and four hours of one to 200 - meaning that a 50-minute seminar conducted in a lecturer's office nets the university just over £200. A compulsory lecture makes three grand.

Based on that, my course makes £21,000 per week. That's £630,000 a year. For first-years, in one department.

Another interesting one is hall fees. My room sets me back about £2,000 per year. It is perhaps for this reason that I try to spend so much time online so that I can feel I'm getting my money's worth.

Several of my friends have come up with some fairly ingenious ways of playing the system. One of them has avoided washing any cutlery since the start of the year by covertly removing spoons, knives and forks from the refectory and, once used, throwing them into a box under the sink.

Another way I'm trying involves signing up for every subsidised activity known to man, in the knowledge that I've already paid for it.

Unfortunately, the Students' Union has yet to agree my proposal for a subsidised casino and bookmakers, but the general meeting is next week. Here's hoping.

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