Opinion: We should be pushing for cheaper degrees, not just ‘full transparency’

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By Fiorenza Dell'Anna, Opinion Editor

Following the demands for ‘full transparency’ over tuition fees at yesterday’s Student Council meeting, the issue of whether we are receiving value for money has by no means dissipated.

The birth of COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on a great manner of things. Despite the pretence of upbeat positivism amongst University spokespeople across the UK, students cannot help but be sceptical.

June is upon us, and by now most students will have somewhat reluctantly applied (or re-applied) for the next lashing of their student loan.

Disappointed after being given a taste of the new forms of online teaching, they may have hesitated and perhaps, like I did, taken a second to wonder: ‘Will I be getting my money’s worth this year?’

With a flood of emails that offer little-to-no information, students remain bewildered. Great care appears to have been taken in not promising anything in the current climate. Yet the seemingly impossible guarantee – the mantra that Universities are holding tightly on to – is that our pre-COVID-19 standard of education will be upheld. Along with every other cynic with a raised eyebrow, I simply ask: ‘How’?

If the last term of online teaching is any indication of the standard of tuition allegedly being ‘upheld’, we are a long way away from that aspiration. Seminars conducted on Blackboard forums that require manual refreshing, are neither what I signed up for, nor what I am paying for.

But let us for a moment indulge in the notion that standards will remain unaltered. Bristol, like many other Universities, will be adopting a ‘blended’ means of tuition. This will entail part-time face-to-face learning, in which students can attend seminars in person, and online-only lecture recordings. If this is the same as our original degree, the alarming question that invariably arises is this: ‘Why was my education so similar to an Open University degree to begin with?’

The answer is that it wasn’t.

There is nothing wrong with Open University, and by pointing out the similarities I am not endeavouring in any capacity to undermine it – particularly as it is structurally and virtually identical to the year that awaits us. There is, however, the small caveat of it costing just under three-thousand pounds a year less. And that’s before accommodation fees are factored in.

To the seemingly impossible guarantee that our pre-COVID-19 standard of education will be upheld, along with every other cynic, I simply ask: ‘How’?

The only justification for this abundant fee – for what is, in essence, the same service – appears to be a heavy reliance on the increasingly-less-sturdy crutch of the prestige argument: ‘Bristol is a Russell Group University’.

We are all proud, including the infamous ‘Oxford rejects’, to be here. However, in light of current circumstances, the question that will resonate with most of us, is: ‘Why did we work so hard to get here, if the Open University route would have not only been cheaper, but almost identical?’

‘No one could have foreseen the pandemic!’ the apologists will cry. This is true, and no one is saying that Universities face an easy feat. Yet the guarantee that the standard of education will be upheld also raises a few questions, for one cannot help but reflect upon what that standard is.

If an honest conversation is to be had, one must acknowledge there have been issues surrounding a fall in the standard of tuition for this academic year, which predate the virus.

All lectures to be taught online from autumn academic term
NUS calls for UK students to be able to retake or be reimbursed for this academic year

This may, in turn,  lead one to mention the elephant in the room: the UCU strikes. Supporter or not, one cannot deny the strikes created an immense dent in the standard of education this year.

In that aspect, the move to online teaching and subsequent open-book, online exams, have come as something of a saving grace for the faculties, who have avoided assuming the blame for the fact that weeks of curriculums all over campus remain untaught.

Despite this, in the mist of denial and selective forgetfulness, it is reluctantly recognised that the weeks of strikes, in conjuncture with the shift to online teaching, created an academic landscape that was not worth the money we paid.

The all-too-well-known rebuttal that Bristol is a fine institution no longer suffices to justify this. We have been intoxicated with the Russel Group fantasy for far too long and accepted it in far too unquestioning a fashion. We work extremely hard to attain places and attend this University, but what is being done to deserve these efforts?

Like many students who feel like the Emperor in the famous Danish fable, I find myself clothed in the invisible prestige of an incomplete, virtual degree

It appears as though students have come to blindly accept a paraphrased rhetoric of JFK’s famous words: ‘ask not what your University can do for you – ask what you can do for your university’. So we pay, and keep our expectations (if we dare to have any) low for the year that awaits us.

Perhaps this brings to the forefront the pressing need to have a frank conversation about whether our new virtual degree courses truly are good value for money.

Much like many students beginning to feel like the Emperor in the famous Danish fable, I find myself clothed in the invisible prestige of an incomplete, virtual degree that has been adorned with a crown of debt, tailored by the Russell Group and SFE.

I face my future, naked and weighed down by the weight of my crown.

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