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Priscilla Wegbe, a first-year law student at the University of Southampton, sounded more like a shopper than a scholar as she appraised her university experience.
With Southampton’s £9,250 in annual tuition fees, plus living expenses, Ms Wegbe, from south-east London, expects to incur “a lot” of debt by the time she earns a degree.
For that money, the school’s lectures were OK, she said. But she was doing most of the learning from textbooks on her own.
“At the end of the day, it’s the same everywhere,” Ms Wegbe, 19, shrugged. “I’m just somewhere with a better name.”
The value of higher education in Britain is coming under fresh scrutiny as student debt rises and public anger grows over the generous pay packages awarded to many university vice-chancellors.
Protests erupted at the usually placid university of Bath after it emerged that its vice-chancellor, Glynis Breakwell, was paid £468,000 last year — and used the university to claim an additional £20,000 in household expenses that ranged from utilities for a listed Georgian townhouse to a £2 packet of biscuits.
Dame Glynis has announced plans to retire next year, although more than 70 professors from the university signed a letter this week demanding that she leave immediately. She has rebuffed them so far.
Southampton university’s vice-chancellor, Christopher Snowden, was paid £433,000 last year © Morten Watkins/Solent News
Unrest has spread to other universities, including Birmingham, whose vice-chancellor was paid £426,000 last year. Southampton, whose vice-chancellor, Christopher Snowden, was paid £433,000, has also come under scrutiny.
Amyas Morse, the head of the UK’s National Audit Office, said this week that universities would be accused of “mis-selling” if they were regulated like financial service providers. In a damning report, the public spending watchdog noted that less than a third of students in England believed their courses offered value for money.
“We are deliberately thinking of higher education as a market, and as a market, it has a number of points of failure,” Sir Amyas said.
In interviews this week, students such as Ms Wegbe displayed a cool realism about a relationship many of them view as transactional. Students pay ever-higher costs in order to fund higher salaries for administrators and build shinier facilities — in part to attract yet more fee-paying students. Even some professors say universities increasingly regard students as cash cows to be milked.
“It’s been an eye-opener,” Ms Wegbe said of her realisation that university was “more a means to an end than learning for learning’s sake”.
Gemma Barnett: ‘It’s really hard to detach yourself from “what do I want to do” and “what is most financially viable”. It’s really tied into the marketisation of the university’ © Christopher Jones/FT
At Bath, Gemma Barnett, a 19-year-old politics student who expects to graduate with £52,000 in debt, was also struggling to balance academic interests and commerce.
“It’s really hard to detach yourself from ‘what do I want to do’ and ‘what is most financially viable’,” she said. “It’s really tied into the marketisation of the university.”
Ms Barnett was fond of Bath, she said, but regarded many of the facilities erected under Dame Glynis’s leadership more as trophies for donors and investors than elements to improve student life. Some of the buildings feature slogans about the university’s league table rankings that seem to have been lifted from a marketing brochure.
Ms Barnett joined a group, Bath Students Against Fees and Cuts, this year after attending a local screening of the film I, Daniel Blake — about Britain’s creaking benefits system — hosted by the activist director Ken Loach. The screening was supposed to take place at the university but Mr Loach moved it off campus in protest at Dame Glynis’s pay and the school’s prolific use of zero-hours contracts for low-level staff.
“I don’t think student satisfaction has massively increased from when the tuition was £3,000 per year,” Ms Barnett said, referring to the period before 2012 when Britain’s coalition government raised university tuition as part of its austerity programme. University was free in the UK before 1998.
Her friend, Jessica Louise, 19, also failed to see the value for her money. “It’s an amazing university and I love it,” she said of Bath. “But it’s not top.”
Kristin Barrett: ‘I do think it’s [vice-chancellor’s pay] a bit immoral but in the grand scheme of things I have bigger fish to fry’ © Morten Watkins/Solent News
At Southampton, the row over Sir Christopher’s pay has so far generated less protest. Some students were unaware of it when asked earlier this week. But others were discussing it on Facebook. Some staff, who are facing job losses this year, posted news reports about it in lecture halls, according to Kristin Barrett, 21, a languages student.
“I do think it’s a bit immoral but in the grand scheme of things I have bigger fish to fry,” Ms Barrett said, as she handed out leaflets for a holiday company to passers-by outside the student union. “I wouldn’t say we learn more than people at other universities who don’t pay.”
She has seen Sir Christopher only once since starting university, during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
“It was him that pushed the button,” she explained.
Ms Barrett is uncertain what she will do after she graduates. While spending a year teaching in Mexico she met Southampton alumni who managed to live comfortably there while remaining below the £21,000 annual pay threshold after which students must begin to repay their loans. She seemed to be considering the idea.
Of her own debts, she observed: “It doesn’t seem real yet . . . I think because everyone does it, we don’t question it.”
Ben Hughes believes his course at Southampton university represents value for money © Morten Watkins/Solent News
Ben Hughes, 20, an electrical engineering student, marvelled at the quality of Southampton’s new laboratories, not to mention the many clubs he has joined for filmmaking, radio, comedy and other pursuits. “Value for money? It’s very good,” he said.
Still, Mr Hughes struggled to justify Sir Christopher’s salary. “Personally, I think it’s excessive,” he said.