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13th March 2020

The true cost of tuition fees

Lucca Di Virgilio discusses the problems with profiteering from university education
The true cost of tuition fees
Student protest at the University of Vienna, October 2009. Photo: Manfred Werner@WikimediaCommons

A 2019 poll reported in the Guardian revealed that psychological distress among students is at an all-time high. The poll, which sampled 38,000 students across UK Universities, reported that 50.3% of participants had experienced thoughts of self-harm, whilst 87.7% of students struggled with feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness with second- and third-year students at greatest risk. In some cases, figures were twice as high as reported rates in 2017.

The causes of this decline in student well-being are myriad and complex. Not least are the modern strains of maintaining social media platforms and the increasing competitivity of the labour market. And of course, cuts to mental health services for under-18s have heightened the likelihood that young people entering university will have pre-existing mental health issues.

Although these surrounding issues play a huge role in the decline of student mental health, there is one major factor which cannot be ignored – tuition fees.

The problems associated with tuition-fees are becoming increasingly more visible. Since 1998, tuition fees in England and Wales have become incrementally higher, from £1,000 per annum to £9,250.

Critics have also argued that taking education out of the public sphere has precipitated changes to the way universities are run. Universities seems to have become more like customer-driven businesses with policy choices more and more based on financial returns and efficacy rather than guided by the needs of students and researchers.

One area where the neglect of student needs is apparent is in the lack of investment in counselling services. Indeed, students from Bristol, University College London and Goldsmiths protested in 2017 and 2018 against poorly funded university mental health services.

While the underfunding of such services is undoubtedly exacerbating the problem, I believe that paying for tuition is systematically flawed. Critics argue that tuition reduces students to a commodity, that is, an object of economic value which is part of a transaction. They also contend that, now, universities are in the business of selling students to the labour market. The success of students affords institutions more investment and more international attention. Therefore, it could be argued universities are motivated to train students for high-level jobs rather than educate them.

Across the pond, the rise of tuition was accompanied by a transformed understanding of the point of university. A professor of New York State University argues that “as a requirement for competing in the marketplace, educational institutions transformed themselves into country clubs with dazzling technology without much educational value”. In this system, “being trained is much more important than being educated”.

Though the cost of tuition in the US is generally higher, a consequence of the lack of government interference in what institutions can charge, in principle the US and English and Welsh systems are the same. Now, students pay educational institutions to equip them with the knowledge and know-how required of them to compete for graduate level jobs.

In this topsy-turvy world where pedagogy has turned to profit, a student’s academic performance translates into their value to employers. One consequence of this is that students now derive their self-worth from their academic performance.

One vocal critic of this system is Mark Crawford, a postgraduate student union officer at UCL who commented in a 2019 Guardian interview that “driving our universities to act like businesses doesn’t just cannibalise the joy of learning and the social utility of research and teaching; it also makes us ill”.

Crawford’s comments have particular resonance in the exam halls at business-driven universities, where students compete with one another to prove their value to the market, in order to be able to pay back their huge debts. In this Darwinian dystopia, it is perhaps unsurprising that English and Welsh universities are witnessing a spike in mental-health issues.

State-funded institutions do not seem to have this problem. Free Swedish Universities, for example, structure examinations and assessments in ways that takes the pressure off students in exams; they tend to have more simplistic grade boundaries, lenient regulations and longer durations than English and Welsh institutions.

In Sweden, the traditional written examination in Humanities or Social Sciences is usually between three and five hours long, consists of several 200-word essays and one long essay. And most exams are also written on computers, which enforce a word limit.

The grade-boundaries themselves are also much more simplistic. Until recently, students at most Swedish Universities receive either Pass/Fail or Pass with Distinction. And, Students can retake and attain a high grade in exams if they fail the first time, which is very different from England where students are capped to a maximum grade of 40% in a resit.

Additionally, qualifying for mitigating circumstances often involves an arduous process of appeal in British academia. Conversely, Swedish students can choose to miss an exam for any reason and attend the retake without penalty.

These measures, undoubtedly, help to reduce student anxiety which naturally escalates around exam season. But, more importantly, they are the outcome of a more informal system which treats students as people rather than commodities.

University remains a site of growth where students are given room to develop new skills and knowledge to become well-educated. Whereas, with anxiety on the rise in England and Wales, the definition of university as a site of growth is in doubt.

Lucca Di Virgilio

Lucca Di Virgilio

Co-head Opinion editor

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