Why I...believe universities should be more understanding of fee paying students

July 22, 2005

At Sussex University, the annual dissertation dash has become a grand tradition.

It is known as the "five o'clock run" or the "run of shame", as thousands of students have to hand in final coursework by 5pm that day.

Those who have already completed assignments watch with amusement as others make a mad rush for Falmer House in their quest to beat the deadline.

However, the best-laid plans never go the way you expect and this year, as 5pm approached, so did the rain. Usually students sprawl all over the grass, pint in hand, watching the runners from a respectable distance. This year, everyone crowded onto the path, making the final run a far more intimate but slower affair than usual.

As the seconds ticked away, the crowd was rewarded for its patience as one last student dived out of Arts A and ran, hell for leather, towards Falmer House. Everyone went mad, the deadline passed and a rite of passage was over.

While it may not have been as entertaining as the Sussex dash, as spring gave way to summer, thousands of students across the country made frantic efforts to submit coursework and dissertations before deadlines expired.

For those unable to make it on time, there was the agony of doctors' notes, filling out extenuating circumstances forms and waiting to see if their appeals would be granted.

There were, of course, the old stand-bys - illness, complications in foreign travel arrangements and family crises - but also new ones. Hard drives and computer viruses - not dogs - eat homework these days.

Some lecturers complain that late submissions and the excuses that go with them are on the increase. Many lump the trend in with alleged grade inflation, a growing sense of student entitlement and a mollycoddling campus culture.

I've experienced the panic that many students feel when the end of the academic season is nigh and the anguish of rejection when you ask for an extension.

Three years ago, I was a postgraduate journalism student at a London university, commuting from Oxford and holding down a night job at Sainsbury's. However, when I asked my tutor to give me an extension, he looked at me, smiled derisively and said that if I couldn't cope with deadlines, I might as well leave university because he didn't grant extensions...ever.

"Even if your mother dies!" he said, as I stormed out of his office.

I think it is time that lecturers and vice-chancellors woke up and smelt their cappuccinos.

If universities are going to charge £3,000 in tuition fees from next year, they have to provide extra services for the extra money. If that means being more understanding when it comes to granting extensions, so be it.

It is unfair to think that today's students are less committed than previous generations. Universities should be more about showing you have the knowledge to further yourself academically than the ability to meet deadlines.

Many of our senior academics went to university in the days of full grant.

Many of today's students, however, have to hold down jobs in order to survive financially. Lecturers should realise that the commitment needed to embark on an education that will land you with tens of thousands of pounds in debt is far greater than was necessary for people who knew the Government would pick up the bill for their studies.

For many financially hard-pressed students, a small extension may be all that stands between them graduating and dropping out.

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