Can concerns about value for money be accommodated online?

If policymakers are worried about the cost of degrees, why aren’t living expenses taken into account?

July 23, 2020
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As everyone in Yorkshire knows, you don’t get owt (anything) for nowt (nothing). Yet in the student districts around a certain Yorkshire university 30 years ago, it felt more like you got nowt for owt. The bedsits rented to students by local landlords were routinely damp, freezing and easy pickings for burglars. They also felt very expensive – although £26 a week takes on rather different proportions in retrospect.

Still, if the term “student experience” had existed then, living with fellow students in accommodation that middle-class parents hesitated even to enter would certainly have been cited as a core part of it. And few were keen to move into the more salubrious but spartan, characterless university flats.

Since then, mushrooming student numbers have brought another player into the market: property developers. But while their “en suite as standard” offerings are another step up in quality, they come at a certain cost.

This was illustrated last year, when University of Portsmouth students were told only days before the start of the academic year that they would not be able to move into a developer’s new block because it wasn’t finished. The university’s vice-chancellor, Graham Galbraith, called at the time for new regulations to be introduced to hold developers (whose accommodation is, on average, 22 per cent more expensive than university-provided blocks) to account. After all, he noted, accommodation affects “the student experience and mental health, the cost and value for money of universities, and the impact of institutions on their local area”.

There are several things to say about this in light of recent UK political developments. One is to note a certain amount of backsliding on universities’ part about whether the student experience really does include residence. Student demands for refunds to compensate for campus shutdowns amid the pandemic have been brushed off on the ground that tuition has still been provided online. Yet as Maria Magdalena Gajewska, a prospective PhD candidate, wrote in a blog published by Times Higher Education earlier this week, when lectures were cancelled in 2018 because of industrial action, universities also refused refunds on the ground that, as she puts it, “you are not paying just for your teaching; you are paying for the university experience”.

Then there is the repeated questioning by the government of the value for money offered by some courses and institutions and the “tearing up” of Tony Blair’s 50 per cent participation target. The universities minister, Michelle Donelan, said just last week that to worry about disadvantaged students’ access to university is to focus on “the wrong question”; the important issue is to make sure “that those groups that do go [on to higher study] complete, that [courses] lead to graduate jobs, but also looking at what’s in that student’s best interests…We don’t necessarily want everybody to go to university.”

Such comments have been interpreted by some as throwing a wet blanket on working-class aspiration – ironically, in response to anti-university feeling among the Conservatives’ new northern working-class voters.

Clearly there have always been class issues in higher education. Young people growing up in those inner-city Yorkshire districts where students congregated 30 years ago would have had no thought of going to university. Now at least some of them do – but they are still disproportionately likely to attend a local post-92 university. Partly, no doubt, that is so they can save costs by living at home – although, according to Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, the evidence suggests that such “commuter students” often lose out on the full “experience” and are less likely to succeed academically.

If we are really concerned about value for money, then surely the cost of accommodation is as relevant as the cost of degrees. And while UK students largely pay the same for their tuition, those accommodation costs vary enormously according to city, district and type of landlord, rivalling or even outstripping tuition fees in some cases (as well as exceeding the maximum permitted maintenance loan).

Living costs might well be kept down if “local or national government built student accommodation themselves or in partnership with universities”, as Galbraith suggests. But the government seems keener on redirecting some students to local, non-boarding further education colleges.

The alternative, perhaps, might be to learn from the lockdown and start to wean the UK off what Hillman calls the “boarding-school model” of university, allowing students also to study online from home – a dual track that some universities are already implementing amid the ongoing pandemic, particularly for international students.

Virtual students would, of course, miss out on some opportunities on campus – where the more affluent students would doubtless continue to congregate, opening up another class divide. But if online attendance became mainstream, many virtual students’ school friends would still live at home too, so they wouldn’t want for social interaction.

Would this be as good as boarding with friends? Perhaps not. But if value for money really means minimising cost, then it might be a better, more socially mobile alternative to further education. When it comes to higher education, is owt is better than nowt?

paul.jump@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Don’t discount cost of digs

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