Forum lays down proposals in bid to improve student life

Better information and flexible finance are among report recommendations, Rebecca Attwood writes

October 23, 2008

Universities should publish the contact hours and assessment styles students can expect on their courses, as well as charts showing how their fees are spent, according to proposals drawn up by a new national student body.

The National Student Forum - which the Government set up in February to give students a greater say in policy - also calls for student loans to be increased to cover the full cost of living, and for grants to allow those from poor backgrounds to visit at least two universities or colleges before they apply.

In its first annual report, the 18-strong group focuses on information, advice and guidance and student finance, areas that were highlighted by a series of "student juries" held at universities around the country.

Key recommendations include the establishment of a "first port of call" website for higher education, drawing together all information sources, and new guidelines on the pre-entry information that institutions provide about their courses.

"Although there is a huge amount of information out there, it is really hard to navigate your way through it," said Maeve Sherlock, chair of the forum, former head of the Refugee Council and a PhD student at Durham University.

"There isn't a single place on the web where you can go even as a starting point to take you to all that you will need," she said, admitting that when she was looking for a course she googled "Theology UK university".

"These days it's a big decision to decide to invest the time and money needed to come to university, so it's really important to know not just what your course is called but what it will involve - not just that it's a degree in politics but what aspect of politics will you study? How much contact time is there? How is it assessed?

"And you also need to get a true picture of what your college or university will be like to live and study in. Many students will go to open days, which is a really good idea, but we think there should be financial help for those from poorer families to travel to these places," she said.

Students felt that the current student loan was not enough to live on.

Research published this week by the National Union of Students showed that 46 per cent of students who worked during term time were forced to do so because their basic living costs exceeded their loans. Forty-five per cent said this had a negative impact on their studies, and a third worked more than 17 hours a week during term time.

The student forum wants more flexibility over when students receive their loans, and monthly and termly payment options for tuition fees. It said that there should also be greater transparency over how universities are financed, with universities committing to providing a simple breakdown.

"We believe that the current lack of transparency about how tuition fees are spent by universities and colleges can lead to resentment about how much is charged for different courses, especially when there is so much variation in contact time or use of resources," the forum report says.

International students "can sometimes feel that they are paying over the odds compared with domestic students", while "many domestic students are not aware that their tuition costs are actually subsidised".

For part-time students, the forum says the Government should consider introducing student loans. "In an ideal world, the employer will make a contribution towards cost, but in reality we feel this situation is a long way off," the report says.

Other suggestions include giving academic staff compulsory disability-awareness training and working more systematically to raise awareness of disability among the general student population.

The report says there is a risk that "high costs and insufficient responsiveness" to the specific needs of international students could potentially undermine their perceptions of UK higher education in the long term.

The forum will discuss "cultural transition" workshops for international students starting university, and a licensing system to authenticate courses and offer international students security when they are applying to the UK.

It also says there is a gap between the Quality Assurance Agency's code of practice on postgraduate study and the reality and asks for this to be investigated. Some supervisor support is "patchy," while there is a need for better support and training for postgraduates who undertake teaching, and for more measures to ensure that postgraduates do not feel isolated, the report says.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

www.dius.gov.uk/policy/nsf

'I THINK IT IS A GREAT PATCH'

Lord Young, the new Minister for Students, did not go to university but left school midway through his teens to become a telecoms apprentice.

But he has a vested interest in the success of the sector - his son and daughter are both currently studying for degrees.

"My son alleges that he is doing a degree in computer games," he joked to students on a visit to Durham University last week.

On his appointment to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, he said: "I think it is a great patch - I'm quite pleased, to put it mildly."

Lord Young is a former BBC governor who began as a local trade union representative in 1967. He went on to become the general secretary of the National Communications Union, deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, and then president of the Trades Union Congress.

He will be hearing the views of students at each university he visits as the Government continues its "student listening programme", he promised.

Lord Young welcomed the first annual report from the National Student Forum, which he said contained many practical suggestions.

Commenting on the report's call for better information, advice and guidance for students applying to university, he said: "I know from my own children's experience of trying to choose a university that it is confusing."

Lord Young will also be responsible for the Government's skills agenda, overseeing sector skills councils, engaging employers in Train to Gain, and building employer support for apprenticeships.

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