Quids in or just out of pocket?

July 30, 1999

As the first students to pay fees end their first year, do they feel they are getting value for money? Alan Thomson reports

If higher education courses have become commodities, then undergraduates seem pretty pleased with their purchases.

Although much is made of differences in the quality of education offered by universities, our survey revealed a remarkable consensus among undergraduates that courses and, in particular, the standard of lecturing were generally good.

Those surveyed are the first intake to have to pay the Pounds 1,000 tuition fee. And, although difficult to compare, it may strike many THES readers that today's undergraduates are far more interested in and critical of the structure of courses and the quality of lecturing than was the case in the past.

Darrin, a culture, media and communications student at Lancaster, must surely bring joy to the hearts of all lecturers. "I think my lecturers are good and you cannot fail to be enlightened by them. They are obviously educated people, so it is an interesting experience just listening to them. I have no grumbles with my course," he said.

His Lancaster colleague Jamie, studying history, politics and law, was similarly impressed but could not quite see what the tuition fee was for. "Even though the standard of teaching here is really good, you sometimes wonder what you pay tuition fees for. You go to lecturers, talk about an issue and that's it; they say 'read this', and then you've got to buy the books."

Ronan, combined science at Lancaster, thought that there may be some conflict between teaching and research: a theme that was to crop up again. "Because there are so many people in my lectures - 200 or something - everyone's queuing up. If you go and try to find the lecturer afterwards, they are always busy with research, which, I suppose, is fair enough from their point of view."

The Lancaster students, like many others in the THES survey, made it clear that they thought that some universities are better than others. They placed Lancaster in the top ten or 15 universities. Timetabled hours varied from 16 for Ronan to just six for Pete, doing philosophy. Average first-year lecture size was between 150 and 200.

The idea of a university pecking order was undermined by the responses from our Plymouth University group.

Plymouth, one of the former polytechnics, which, as a group, often enjoy less prestige than "old" universities, was rated highly by respondents for the quality of its lecturing. Finding these top-quality lectures was a different matter.

Chris, studying hydrography, put it bluntly: "Once you find them they're great, but it's just finding them. Also, people were meant to have lectures on floor nine of the Davy building when it doesn't have nine floors in it."

Fiona, foundation engineering, said the standard of teaching was very good. She did, however, form the impression that some lecturers thought it was a "pain in the arse" to have to lecture because research was the priority.

Joanne, media lab arts, chose her course because it was one of the few in the country and had a 100 per cent graduate employment rate.

Andy, underwater science, was unhappy about credit transfer arrangements. He said: "I did a science foundation year through Plymouth University. Three of six modules I did last year are identical to the ones I did this year, but they won't give me credit for them, even though I have passed them already."

The average size of their lectures at Plymouth was between 100 and 200, with seminar groups of about ten to 20.

Cardiff University seemed to have large groupings. Areej, studying banking and finance, had one lecture with 500 students attending. The group had to be split to accommodate it. Areej, who was at school in Dubai in classes of 36, seemed unconcerned by numbers because "the lecturers are good".

Doug, communications studies, thought 150 was fine, "because the lecture theatre's superb". He said: "It's more important that seminar groups are of a size where you can get feedback - probably around a dozen people. You can speak but, then again, there's enough people so you don't have to speak if you've got nothing to say."

Most students in the group found the lecturers helpful and approachable. But Areej said that while her personal tutor had been helpful and easy to find, a friend had been less fortunate. "My friend was assigned to a personal tutor that they never saw and then, about a month ago, she got a letter from her saying, 'I'm leaving for Japan, here's your new personal tutor, go and see him'."

Siobhan, studying English and history at Goldsmiths College, also had tutor problems. She said: "Sometimes I may as well be on an Open University course because my tutors keep changing - there's no continuity. One of my tutors just stopped turning up, we didn't see anything of him. When it's like that, you can't even be bothered turning up for lectures because you think 'What's the point?'"

But Ben, studying English at Goldsmiths, seemed to understand the pressures faced by lecturers. He said: "It's not just to do with lecturers and the standard of lecturing, it's to do with the fact that they have to research and publish and that means that there is less time for students and teaching."

Kirsty also had a positive experience of tutoring on her art and art history course, but she was unimpressed by the course facilities. "I'm in a hut and I've got no windows and a small space. I had no heating to start off with."

Lawrence, art and design, agreed: "I have to do most of my work at home, or use someone else's space, or even the library - which for an art and design course is just ridiculous."

All the Strathclyde group liked their courses and many had come to Strathclyde specifically because of the courses offered. The standard of lecturing was thought to be good, although this was the only group to support government moves to have teaching qualifications for all new lecturers.

There was some concern about the numbers of postgraduates who had lecturing duties.

Carl, studying English, said: "Our lecturers are good, but there seem to be quite a few postgraduate students teaching. I've got one and you can only get her once a week as she's doing her own work. I mean she has been really helpful and given me her home phone number, but it does make contact a bit more difficult."

In some subjects the lecture groups were huge. Psychology was highlighted by the group because it is offered to everyone in social sciences. There were about 500 people doing psychology, so the university had to split the group into two rooms, one being video-linked to the other.

Cambridge students had different problems in general.

Maggie is the only person in her year doing French and Hungarian at Trinity. She received individual tuition from a woman brought in by the college. But she was angry that the college had decided to shut down much of the small Eastern European languages provision.

She said: "At a university where you can study the most minute, pointless aspects of maths, they won't keep a department open with three or four people."

There was praise for the level of supervision at Cambridge, with tutorial groups of between one and four students. The group felt that it was more difficult to fall through the net academically than at other institutions because of the close relationships formed with tutors. But the downside was that tutors and directors of study received individual end-of-term reports on their students, leading to comments that it felt like being back at school.

Jane, social and political sciences at New Hall, said of her director of studies: "She's like my mum."

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