A Reflection: Why do we Pay for University?

Written by Eve Brown – A reflection from a first years study on why we pay for University.

Credits: Billy Brookes Photography (https://www.billybrookes.com/)

In recent news universities have been under fiscal examination, in the hope to understand better and criticise where our money is spent. In a survey taken in 2016, over 75% of students said they did not feel they had enough information on where their money is used. This has been thrown back in the spotlight in light of the recent strikes.

However this isn’t an article on how the money is used as the figures for Exeter and Falmouth Universities aren’t available and figures available for other universities are highly politicised. This article is rather about why do we (students) give over £9000 a year and what do we pay for?

A key incentive for getting a degree today is the assumption it will help in today’s competitive jobs market, however unemployment among people over 16 is at a lower rate today than in 1998, when a price tag was placed on universities. In 1998, the unemployment figure for people ages 16 and older stood at 6.4% (Office for National Stats. March 1998) compared to 4.3% as was seen in 2017 (the latest figures to be released in April of this year). So although the market is actually more viable for someone without a degree today than in 1998, emphasis is still put on how we gain fiscally from getting a degree. We do gain however with how much we have the potential to earn within a set career, as figures suggest men with a degree are predicted to earn 28% more and women are set to earn 53% more through their lifetime (Guardian, 2013). So is the real incentive for getting a degree how we stand to gain economically?

The label of ‘student’ is worn with pride. It depicts an image of the hard-livered and opinionated individual who is on a journey to both academic and self-discovery. It is the pinnacle of the past years of study and (if your upbringing was anything like mine) a goal set by the parents. There is no doubt that one of the first things we pay for is the ‘university experience’, be that at Falmouth University or Exeter… There is a general acknowledgement that our experiences will be similar. Out of a profound fondness, I look to the infamous Fresher’s Week. It’s known in different terms all over the world, in Canada it’s known as ‘Frosh Week’, in Sweden it’s known as ‘Nollning’ (‘zero’ – having not earned any credit) and in Australia it’s known as ‘Orientation Week’. It is the amalgamation of social networking, drinking and generally settling into your new home, which you have ‘zero’ knowledge of. The most important of these, social networking is hugely important, as you are in essence creating a family and community to support you and to drink with you, for the next (three) years.

Until 1998 university tuition was free, so just how much have they changed (as a whole) since a price-tag was put on their value?

Within his biography, Stephen Fry wrote of his time at Queen’s College, Cambridge (1970s) that “lectures broke into one’s day and were clearly a terrible waste of time” instead putting emphasis on socialising and ‘listening to music’. This (arguably) is very different to today’s’ student’s approach to university life, who appear to take their degree much more seriously. Incentives such as the possibility of a year abroad for today’s students, as well as the fact that we pay a significant amount of money and therefore have to justify it as being spent well. Could it be then that universities have changed in recent times in order to justify the amount we pay? A key part of the modern university experience is societies, which are a cheap, accessible and useful way to network and allow for a more rounded ‘university experience’. Offering everything from a Fetish Society to a Horror Society to the Hispanic Society, there is one to cater to everyone. If you’re still not satisfied, you are given the guidance on how to set up a society. With a membership of around £3 (not including sport-based societies) it’s a great way to network.

Once at university, it’s no secret we pay for the level of tuition and guidance that university provides in our preferred topic(s), allowing one-to-one contact with experts in the field. However, recent research shows that going to a Russel Group university does not guarantee the level of tuition you might expect. This was recognised by the current government, with their plans to introduce a rating system (equivalent of an Ofsted report but for university courses) for individual degree courses, awarding a Gold, Silver or Bronze level of tuition for that course. The aim, to remove the safety-blanket and allow for analysis of the quality of individual courses. Arguably, this is a step in the right direction, allowing students more insight into which university course is really for them. As education secretary Sam Gyimah stated this would “ensure that more students get the value for money they deserve from higher education” (Guardian, Mar-18), as important information such as potential earnings associated with a specific degree will be available to prospecting students.

If this plan goes ahead, it will be a step in the right direction in allowing future students to truly understand what they’re paying for.