An open letter to universities: Why ‘doing your best’ isn’t always doing enough

I am a second-year production management student (theatre, not factory). My higher education experience costs £9,250 per year, plus accommodation, food, transport, bills and general living costs. I am not particularly happy.

There seems to be a general misunderstanding between students and academic institutions in the UK over the core purpose of universities. As a student, I (perhaps naively) believe that they exist to educate those who choose to pay for the privilege. It seems universities themselves see their responsibility more as a reflection of human life – existing in order to continue existing, giving away some post nominals along the way.

Maybe this is why my university set out the following as their priorities during this crisis:

Notice that the institution’s sustainability is considered to be of equal importance to the health of students and staff, and the ability of students to continue their studies. In recent discussions with teaching staff, the possibility of redundancies has been mentioned, as if this is somehow the responsibility of the student body.

The prime purpose of universities is not to employ lecturers – it is to educate students.

Just as hospitals exist to treat patients and prisons to house prisoners, schools and universities exist to educate. Universities need to realise that they are not special. They are businesses selling a package of higher education, facilities, and the social experience of living and working with fellow students. Students are their customers. If you market your facilities as a defining feature of your institution, don’t then act surprised when your customers aren’t happy at you refusing to provide them.

Imagine you hold a membership with the fictional ‘OCR Gyms’. They announce that they’re closing their sites but that they’ll still provide guidance on exercises to do at home and that you can set up a video to watch other people exercising too. Because of this, you’re not entitled to any refund. Would you be satisfied?

The Department for Education have been far from blameless (never mind competent) this year but they are correct in their assertion that students hold contracts with individual universities and colleges. The government requiring facilities be closed should not be of concern to students. For a student, their university is refusing to provide something previously advertised and that they are paying for.

Many providers relied on facilities as a key selling point when recruiting students, yet once the coronavirus disease hit were claiming that fees funded no more than core teaching. For some, this teaching amounted to little more than last year’s PowerPoint presentations. Universities proclaiming that their hands have been tied by our bumbling government holds little weight with students paying nearly £30,000.

Students go to university not just for an award. They go to gain knowledge and skills, meet new people and enjoy the social life that universities love(d) to promote. The vast majority of communications from my deanery focus only on progression. Progressing to the next year is of little use to me if I haven’t learnt what I need to.

A vocational degree is supposed to give you skills, but you can’t teach me to run a technical rehearsal via video call and I can’t host a stage show from my bedroom.

Oh, and Teams is possibly the least impressive product to have come from Microsoft in recent years. Being forced to use it if you are to access your online learning resources is like a slap in the face. The phrase ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ springs to mind.


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