Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
The bachelor’s degree is traditionally considered the zenith of the majority of people’s higher education and academic achievement: the steppingstone into the jobs market. It is a three- or four-year long experience that prepares us for the adult world. To have a degree is to have a certificate which declares that you are capable of independent thought, have remained academically curious in your field for the duration of your studies, and are now in a position to apply these skills to the real world.
A generation or two ago, going to university guaranteed not only that you would most likely be thoroughly stretched and subject to a stringent level of assessment, but also put a kind of safeguard around your future. University was free, and therefore more competitive, and the value of a degree could not be underestimated.
Students of today stand across from their parents in terms of the standard in the university education they receive. Technology has led to the increased accessibility of resources from wherever a student happens to be. I would be the first to admit that I have foregone attending a lecture as I know that it will be recorded for me to watch at a later date. however, the substitutions of lectures in their entirety with a collection of PowerPoint slides and suggested readings has led to the disheartening realisation that the ‘independent’ learning that we are all supposed to be doing, benefits the university far more than it benefits me.
The contact time that is supposed to make up the real, practical parts of my degree has suffered numerous disruptions over the course of this academic year. This has been met with half-hearted assurances that tutors will ‘do their best’ to assess the small amount of work which is being submitted in the first place. This has laid bare the reality of an educational system which is over-stretched in the interests of revenue over quality education.
As I wait for the third payment from Student Finance England to my university of my tuition fees on the 6th of May for £4,625, which I will then be required to pay back at a premium rate of interest, I struggle to understand just what it is I am paying for.
Across the three modules which I have taken this semester, I have been offered: one weekly online tutorial for the first three weeks of lockdown (which has subsequently been cancelled), the option to post once weekly to an online discussion board regarding the readings (which will receive ‘feedback’ from my tutor in the form of a comment), and a selection of PowerPoint slides and suggested readings. I am assured by all involved that I will be able to contact necessary parties for advice and discussion regarding the content, but considering that I have not actually had a physical lesson or lecture since the 14th of February, I am struggling to see where exactly I am supposed to start or how to begin sorting through these resources.
Such assurances ring hollow as I am told that my course has now been made pass / fail, that only 20% of my course load will be assessed, and that any other work that is submitted may receive comment – but not official feedback – from my tutors (at their discretion). I can’t help but feeling I have bought myself a subscription to a very expensive library.
Previously, it has been possible to overlook the second-rate nature of the product which I am paying inordinate sums for – at least there really were lectures and tutorials or seminars in big important university buildings – who cares if little is said of interest or benefit in either of them? The feeling of ‘getting’ an education (or failing to get one) still existed. Now, at a distance, it is possible to see how the wool has been mightily pulled over our eyes. Shortcuts have been made again and again in the interests of increasing capacity and justifying expensive shiny new buildings (Edinburgh Futures Institute, I’m looking at you). The truth is, however, that the heart of institution cannot be its buildings, but the education that it offers.
Once this crisis abates, questions must be asked about just exactly what it is that university students are paying for, as an increasingly narrow graduate jobs market means that the name of an ancient institution on your CV is simply not going to be enough.
The extent to which universities can claim that they are offering us ‘teaching’ must be called into question, and changes must be made to restore the value of the degree to something which amounts to more than just a tax on education, and, considering the disruption and failure to provide adequate replacements in the wake of this crisis, students must be refunded for the education which they have plainly not received. Had this crisis happened 30 years ago, there would surely have been no question about refunding students for lost time. Falling back on sub-par, botched virtual learning which already exists as supplementary to the core of our degrees as a justification for continuing to charge students the full rate of tuition is both disingenuous and unfair.
Ed Holtom is a student at the University of Edinburgh.