Learning lessons on value

Today's graduates have a financial stake in their degrees.

The students across the UK who are demanding compensation for missed lessons when their lecturers go on strike tomorrow are not necessarily against the proposed industrial action.

In fact, much like students of past generations, their sympathies may well be with their protesting teachers and their grievances – over pensions, in this case. But unlike their forebears, today’s cohorts have a financial stake in their degrees and they are determined to get their money’s worth. In that, they are just like any other consumers.

Apart from Scottish and, for now, EU students attending Scottish universities, youngsters must pay pretty substantial fees for their tertiary education and this inevitably shapes their attitude towards their studies.

At Edinburgh University nearly 2,000 people have signed online petitions calling on the university to reimburse tuition fee-paying students for the contact time they expect to lose as a result of action, organised by the University and Colleges Union.

More than 2,000 students at the University of Bristol have signed a petition demanding £300 in compensation for lost time with their lecturers.

At Westminster, there is government backing for such a stance, with the universities minister, Sam Gyimah, agreeing that students have consumer rights and should be offered money if their classes are curtailed.

In England, it has also been suggested that summer exams could be ‘dumbed down’ to accommodate the academics’ walk-out.

University College London is just one venerable institution that said it might cut questions from some papers if courses have not been completed.

To those of us who graduated in the days when university was for the minority and the state paid all tuition fees, the concept of students complaining about lost lessons is quite novel.

And perhaps it still is in Scotland, where the state (or rather the taxpayer) picks up the bill for Scottish young people’s higher education – although there is no evidence, as far as I’m aware, that non-paying Scottish students are greater shirkers than their paying counterparts.

But there are some signs that fees make students take their work more seriously. My eldest daughter, temporarily enrolled at the Sorbonne, where the French pay just two hundred euros a year on average, is struck by the differences between university life in France and England.

There are 30 or 40 students in a seminar in Paris, compared to a handful back home, and there is far more nonchalance towards listening and participating. There could be a cultural explanation, of course, but the classmates she describes (some eating, some sleeping) remind me mostly of my own undergraduate peers.

You get what you pay for and universities that churn out young adults already equipped with a work ethic and an eye on their purse strings are providing a service to potential employers as well as to their clever customers.

But the fee-paying system is far from perfect. It is saddling kids with astronomical debts and, often, not giving them value in return. In Scotland, the answer is to carry on subsidising the 40 per cent or so who will go to university, but this comes at an unacceptable cost. There are not enough funds to finance bursaries for children who need them – in England there has been a greater take-up than in Scotland of university places by those from disadvantaged backgrounds. And to pay for all this free education, thousands of college places have been axed, removing an entire tier of vocational training.

This week Theresa May announced a review of pricey degrees and called for a fee structure that better reflects their quality. She also called for “equality of access” and greater flexibility so that there are as many opportunities in technical education as there are in academic routes. On one thing, though, there will be no change: students south of the border must continue to contribute towards their further education.

Eventually, fees may become more market led, so that the best universities and the most popular courses carry the biggest price tag – which the most able graduates would be able to pay once employed in the most competitive jobs.

This would not exclude anyone on financial grounds because well-endowed universities could afford to provide generous grants.

In Britain, we live in a consumer society and are accustomed to making our own choices; we should encourage school leavers to regard their next move in this light. Those not paying university fees may disagree, but it is surely good training for the real world.