By Victoria Bishop-Rowe
‘Times of Change: The future of the University of Hull’ was the title given to this year’s student conference. The conference, organised by Hull University Union’s Education Zone, and our Vice President of Education Matthew Barrow, focused on the extensive changes seen within higher education over the last year, including the most prominent of the changes; the raising of university tuition fees to £9,000 per year for English students, almost triple that of the previous fees.
Those present at the conference had the pleasure of being joined by Professors Calie Pistoriu and Glenn Burgess of The University of Hull, the Rt. Hon. David Davis Conservative MP, Liam Burns, Graeme Wise and Estelle Hart representing the National Union of Students, Anthony McClaran Chief Executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Professor Craig Mahoney Chief Executive of the Higher Education Academy, and a familiar face to many HUU’s President Aidan Mersh.
For The University of Hull, the changes in higher education came hand in hand with a new strategic plan focusing on the long term; a 20-year vision for our institution. Vice Chancellor Professor Calie Pistorius highlighted the main objective of the plan: to empower both students and staff of The University of Hull, To do this the university must continually improve the plan by reviewing it every couple of years and adjust it to keep up with an ever-changing higher education environment. The Vice Chancellor emphasised that the university must continue to build on its successes, primarily its good record of student experience, including the ratio of staff to students and the employment rate of graduates. For Pistorius, investment is key to the university’s success, both in facilities, as with the refurbishment of the library, and in people.
Pro Vice Chancellor Glen Burgess, discussed the new ways in which The University of Hull is responding to the demands of students; improving feedback mechanisms, providing more flexible teaching and enhancing employment opportunities. He also talked about a new access agreement to funds that has been worked out, offering students more upfront money for things like accommodation. ‘We want a system’, Burgess declared, ‘that doesn’t deter students from coming because of the costs.’
To ensure the quality of higher education is kept to a high standard, the Quality Assurance Agency are working hard to prioritise student engagement in quality assurance and enhancement processes. Anthony McClaran, and the board of directors at the Quality Assurance Agency are having direct engagement with students through their student sounding board. They are also encouraging students to take part in periodic and institutional reviews. These techniques ensure the QAA works closely with the thousands of students they are protecting.
President of the National Union of Students Liam Burns, expressed frustration with the current situation and voiced the concerns of many students, saying ‘everything is a bit crap at the moment’. Liam drew attention to the somewhat confused political position in which students and the NUS find themselves. Liam stressed that in the near future the government will realise that their new fees system is not sustainable, especially given that for every £1 the government lends in tuition fees, 34p is never repaid. Yet with the three main political parties ‘all over the place’ it is hard to see a positive outcome for University students in the near future.
A workshop run by Liam Burns and Graeme Wise, Assistant Director of Policy at the NUS, explained how the new tuition fees system will work providing students with an insight into the ‘squeezed middle’ effect, and auction for the students obtaining ABB at A-level. Wise reminded us of the Minister of State for Universities, David Willets’, idea for the new fees system; that money drives competition. The government claimed that by implementing market forces in the higher education system, the students would have more power. In reality this failed as more universities than the government predicted set their fees at £9000 per year. Graeme joked that the ‘fees system couldn’t be more Stalinist if David Willets went down the UCAS booklet with a red pen deciding how much each course costs.’
Estelle Hart, the NUS Woman’s Officer, called attention to the social inequalities in the education system. ‘We need to do more’, Hart stressed, ‘to combat this imbalance.’ She feels there needs to be more discussion on radical ideas for education, asking ‘are we ever going to solve this problem if the government keeps changing the sticker price of degrees?’ Liam agreed with Estelle’s view and pointed out another issue that needs tackling; the transparency of costs, mainly that of hidden course costs, which causes many students to think they should pay more to obtain their degree. In the coming months, the NUS are organizing a week of action to raise awareness of the devastating implications that the higher education reforms are having, including a national walk out on the 14th March.
Complementing the Student Led Teaching Awards currently underway in our union, Professor Craig Mahoney from the Higher Education Academy, stressed the importance of high quality teaching; ‘we need to ask students what good teaching is’. VP Matthew Barrow hopes the teaching awards will provide the university with rich data to improve students’ experience of teaching, as well as rewarding those members of staff currently standing out for excellent practice. Surprising to many, Mahoney called attention to the thousands of teaching staff that do not have teaching qualifications and stressed that this needs to be reviewed.
The Rt. Hon. David Davis joined the conference to highlight the serious social mobility problem present in the UK at the moment. He pointed out that the higher tuition fees would only escalate this social problem. Davis, going against his own political party, is a strong advocate against the new tuition fees, arguing that it is not right to let people start their working lives with £27,000 worth of debt. With university applicants down by 9%, David believes that the new fees are already having an impact on the life choices of young people. For David, the higher fees only add to his view that at the end of the current government, social mobility will be worse that at the beginning; ‘Society depends on everyone having an equal chance and they don’t at the moment.’
Closer to home, Hull University Union’s President Aidan Mersh, talked about the responsibility of students to promote the wider public benefits of our university. The union currently has a good reputation, with our street reps forging good relations with the local community and HUSSO, the student volunteering group, helping raise the quality of life of those less fortunate. Yet more can still be done. Aidan called attention to the issue of student housing which, as The Hullfire News team reported last month, is a critical part of our university lives. It is therefore essential that HUU work with the city council to ensure students’ needs are meet. In all, we, as a union, need to get the people of Hull on our sides to show ‘that students are worth supporting’.
Many students here at The University of Hull will know all to well the importance of internships and work experience. With the issue of paid internships climbing the political agenda, David Davis expressed his uncertainly on how to tackle the matter. In addition to no pay, unpaid internships also leave the student with no employment rights; begging the question, if payment were to be compulsory, will too much bureaucracy surrounding pay reduce the amount of work experience placements available? From Monday 13th February, the NUS in partnership with the TUC will be campaigning for fair pay conditions for interns.
From the many valuable points made and the views expressed, a recurring theme of the conference is the question of where the line should be drawn between private and public gain. Higher education does not only benefit the individual gaining a degree. There is a benefit to the whole of society by enhancing social mobility and helping boost the economy. For the most part, the newly implemented higher tuition fees do not reflect this social benefit and together we need to push for a fairer system, which puts the needs of students first.
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