The university where I am lucky to work is, like many others, heavily reliant on the fees paid by students. The problem is that the nomenclature implies that only the cost of tuition is covered by the income that is raised from this source. This has led to the demand for refunds following the ongoing USS strike action, where tuition has been impacted.
The reality is that tuition fees are the main source of the funding any university needs in order to deliver an outstanding student experience. Tuition fees are used to support the delivery of teaching, but they are also used to provide the infrastructure and facilities needed to provide a world-class learning environment, both now and in the future.
Like many similar institutions, student tuition fees account for about two-thirds of our total income. The remaining third comes from research grants and government funding, as well as income from student residences, catering and business partnerships.
The main cost of any service industry is staffing, often accounting for more than 50% of total costs. However, most of the staff are not academics; typically about half or less. Even then, academic staff are not always engaged in teaching, or teaching-related activities. Some staff are heavily focussed on research – you have to create knowledge to impart it – and even those that are employed to concentrate on teaching will often fulfil other important non-teaching, administrative roles.
It is interesting that the recent NUS Value for Money study recognises some non-teaching activities and services as important, such as library access and provision. But the terminology of tuition fees is narrowing the argument, and the current political debate is not helped by this myopia.
The professional service teams that support the academics fulfil essential roles without which teaching could not take place. As I write this piece another “beast from the East” has struck and for the second weekend of the winter, the excellent ground, maintenance, security and estates teams have worked hard to ensure the campuses are safe for students and staff. I am sure this is true for all universities that are impacted by severe weather.
The largest group of workers by number are our cleaning staff. Apart from their domestic duties, they often provide a much wider, unpaid, pastoral role. I have heard many accounts of them going above and beyond to support students in need of a shoulder to cry on or a lift to the station.
Universities are an academic community that students are invited to join and be part of for the rest of their lives. I prefer the analogy of someone who joins a gym or a golf club to improve their health and wellbeing. You pay your monthly fees no matter how often you attend and for how long you exercise or play. The fees charged are largely dependent on the quality of what is available and when you can access it. How fit you become, or how well you play, is dependent on your willingness and determination to engage.
I will finish with an anecdote. During my first degree, I studied economics and business. I remember one final year module in particular that was entitled Quantitative Techniques for Decision Making. The classes were not that frequent – something like one two-hour lecture and one tutorial per week. The lecturer’s pedagogic approach was one I now recognise to be called ‘problem-based learning’. We were set a problem during the lecture that required the creation of a Monte Carlo simulation to be completed during the tutorial. This was in the day before PCs, and even calculators were relatively expensive. There was no internet or Google to refer to. Not one of my small cohort could solve the problem.
The day before the tutorial, I left the library at 9 pm (closing time) and met up with two friends on my course who had also been grappling with the same problem. We decided to talk it over in the Student Union bar. We had one beverage (closing time was 10.30pm and we were living off a meagre grant) and moaned about the academic who had set such an impossible task. We then went to our rooms to sleep and to await the solution during the tutorial the following morning, disappointed with our inadequate intellectual abilities. During the night, I woke up with a start and realised that my sub-conscious brain had been whirring away and the solution came to me in an epiphany moment. I sat at my desk for about an hour and solved the problem, and then returned to a peaceful sleep pleased that I had met the academic challenge and out-thought my fellow students.
As I reached the tutorial there was a spring in my step and a smile on my face. My two friends were already there, also looking somewhat pleased with themselves. They too had had the same experience overnight. The purpose of this anecdote is to pose this question. When did the learning take place? It certainly had nothing to do with the amount of class contact. It was about the pedagogic teaching approach, the academic’s intellect and ability and the supportive environment that was provided by the University.
Universities are places where knowledge is created, not just disseminated. They are academic communities where students learn at the highest level. Was it Yeats, or possibly Plutarch, who said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled”? This can never be measured by metrics – including LEOs, TEF, SSRs – and least of all by class contact hours, nor should it be attempted. Let’s move this debate to a higher, intellectual level. So please, let’s talk of university fees, not tuition fees.