Fix eyes on education prize

Hertfordshire v-c advises academy not to get distracted by the extras. Sarah Cunnane writes

June 9, 2011

The fixation with the "student experience" at a time of rising tuition fees risks shifting the academy's focus from vital issues such as the quality of education to peripheral matters such as sports facilities and recreational activities, a vice-chancellor has warned.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Quintin McKellar, who took office at the University of Hertfordshire in January, said the "attitudinal change" among students who are being asked to pay more towards their degrees posed a key "threat" to the sector.

In particular, he worried that students did not necessarily think about education when considering the student experience.

"They think about all the extras they get in terms of having learning-resource buildings, students' unions, sports facilities, orchestras, art galleries and all these sorts of things," he said. "They don't think about education itself as being part of that experience."

Professor McKellar said universities must address these attitudes rather than acquiesce and spend all their additional fee income on non-academic areas.

"I think universities need to do a much better job of selling the fact that education is the most fundamental part of why students come to university, to ensure that they are receptive to us investing more in it as well as those other things," he said.

Hertfordshire is among the minority of institutions that plan not to charge the maximum £9,000 fee in 2012-13, opting instead for fees of between £7,400 and £8,500 a year.

Professor McKellar said the university had been careful not to "act like a sheep and just follow the flock", setting fees at a level that it thought was "value for money".

"We know how much it costs to educate students, and we think that anyone who is overpricing will be found out by the market," he said.

"There's great concern that by not charging £9,000 universities will appear to be inferior, but we don't think that's the case."

He said he was keen to "bring reason into the debate" about higher education funding at a time of "hyperbole" from both universities and the government.

The other immediate threat he identified was the rise of private providers.

While a greater role for for-profit institutions brought "risks and opportunities", he said that evidence of sharp practice in the US was a worry for the UK.

"Whether (for-profits) will have the same altruistic view of education remains to be seen," he said. "There are upsides: if there are more providers in the market it will improve efficiencies and drive prices down, so, in a sense, you can see why the enthusiasm is there on the part of the government. But I do think there are concerns with regards to potential quality and also in terms of the marketing."

Professor McKellar also waded into the long-running debate over the government's demand that researchers provide evidence of the wider impact of their work.

"My view is that the public do have a right to know what research is for...(and) I think there are many research projects where it is quite easy to anticipate what the outcome might be," he said.

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