Asking students whether university is really worth it

Questions of value for money and the purpose of higher education are back in the news. Leo McCann assesses whether the media portrayal matches the reality

Leo McCann is Professor of Management at the University of York

This week’s BBC documentary Is university really worth it? explored issues such as expensive fees and loans, UCU industrial action, grade inflation, and student poverty.

Presented by comedian and former schoolteacher Geoff Norcott, the programme was positioned somewhat toward the entertainment end of the documentary spectrum – but much of the content was recognisable, important and relevant.

I was less impressed, however, by the conclusions the programme arrived at. While many would agree with Norcott’s judgement that universities have become “way too much of a business”, it was much less clear that he had successfully demonstrated that university is “evidently not working” for students, and that “the value has gone down.” What does he mean by “not working”? What does he mean by “value”?

Although rightly drawing attention to students’ concerns and distress with the expense of their fees, accommodation and loans, the narrative never deviated from the right-wing script that university is necessary for access to elite professions such as medicine or law, but beyond this has little or even zero value. Everything was funnelled through a narrow and “common sense” calculus of cost-benefit analysis. This calculus can be extended to such issues as the economic benefits that universities bring to UK towns and cities, but it excludes all notions of higher learning as a socio-cultural good, a form of personal development, or an end in itself.

Speaking to students

Watching TV documentaries about one’s own profession can be an uncomfortable experience, but this programme was essential viewing for me. I recently completed a research study into this very area, funded by the Council for the Defence of British Universities. My findings intersected with some of the issues raised by Norcott’s documentary. But the study also highlighted another side of student perceptions – ones that permit the drawing of less bleak and less economistic interpretations of the value of university life.

Using questionnaires and online interviews, I gathered a detailed picture of UK students’ views of contemporary academia. An online survey distributed via social media received 280 responses from students at universities across the country, and I conducted 25 follow-up interviews. Of the 280 students completing the online survey, 203 were undergraduates, 63 master’s students, and 14 at doctoral level. Degree subjects studied were extremely diverse, reflective of the spectrum of degree subjects taught across UK universities.

The uncontrolled distribution of the survey meant that it can make no claims to representativeness. Students were offered no incentives, and the survey was described as a piece of academic research rather than as a “student satisfaction” type exercise. This could mean there is some self-selection bias in the study – it was completed only by those with sufficient time and interest to take part, and it could be the case that the survey mostly reflects the views of the more academically engaged and enthusiastic members of the student population. The survey responses and interviews nevertheless generated a detailed picture of students’ complicated and ambivalent relationship with their universities.

Portrayal of university life

As in the BBC programme, students expressed opinions that were thoughtful, detailed and often fascinating. They were largely very enthusiastic about the academic content of their degrees and of the teaching abilities and knowledge of their lecturers and professors. Encouraging views about the intellectual content of UK degrees barely featured in the BBC documentary, but over half my questionnaire sample described their studies as very or extremely interesting, and around three quarters regarded their teaching as extremely good, or somewhat good.

They often used words like “fascinating” to describe the content of their degrees, with many suggesting that the best element of being a student was the opportunity to learn more about “subjects they love”.

What emerged was a portrayal of university life in quite traditional terms. It was a rite of passage; students move away from the family home to become independent and autonomous, forming themselves as critically-minded adults with their own viewpoints, identities, and aspirations. From the students’ viewpoint, there was also little or no evidence of “dumbing down” or grade inflation.

So far, so good. But when the survey asked students about the university as an organisation, a slew of grievances emerged, many of which sync closely with the media discussion that followed the documentary (such as this article in the Telegraph).

The cost of tuition fees was commonly described as extortionate, especially by overseas students. Opinions on university-owned accommodation varied, but it was often reported to be wildly overpriced. It was disturbing to read several reported cases of unsafe locations, black mould and rodent infestations.

Some concerning details were also raised about the chronic shortage of adequate pastoral and counselling provision. Many of the students reported suffering at times from anxiety, loneliness and fear of failure. Many wondered where exactly their fees went and described the university as “remote” and “transactional”.

Similar lines of argument were prominent in UCU’s long-running industrial relations disputes. I was expecting students to complain strongly about the disruption caused by the prolonged strikes that have occurred regularly since 2018. I was wrong. Only around 15 per cent claimed to have been “strongly affected” by strikes. Also surprising was the very strong level of sympathy that students expressed towards striking staff. This sample of students overwhelmingly stated that strike action was largely or completely justified (close to 90 per cent).

Comments such as the below were common:

I wish professors were treated with more respect by their directors. I understand that Uni is run as a business, but it seems absurd to prioritise profit and appearances over the quality of teaching.

Something to defend

On complex political questions such as the marketised university, strike action and the practical and intellectual value of their degrees, students in my study demonstrated powerful abilities of critical appraisal. Their views went well beyond the economistic logic of employability, providing detailed accounts of UK universities’ complex and varied purpose and meaning.

This reflects well on what is surely the most important function of higher education – the education of students. It is heartening that it was in the domain of learning and personal growth that this research study found elements of the university system that are powerful, successful and praiseworthy.

Even as students, academics and media commentators rightly draw attention to what is at risk and what has been lost in UK academia, it appears that we still have something very valuable to defend.

6 responses to “Asking students whether university is really worth it

  1. There was nowhere near enough analysis of the funding of HEIs in the programme, as this was evidently the root cause of most of the content. It’s not HEIs which have created this environment, but the programme didn’t ask enough of politicians about options. Nor was much made about the necessity for society to have professional staff trained to an appropriate level.

  2. I agree, Alex. Both of these elements were badly lacking in the programme, as was any suggestion that students often value their academic learning while being rightly upset about high fees, poor ‘value for money’, etc. There was also no discussion of the extent to which humanities, arts and social sciences degrees contribute to an information economy / cultural economy / knowledge economy.

  3. Thanks Leo for an important correction to the depressing conclusions from the documentary. Education should be a public good and indeed it used to be before fees were imposed by government. But despite fees, universities do still deliver real societal benefits and students appreciate their individual gains and the wider asset that higher level learning delivers.

  4. The show has a stat about 69% of grads saying university isn’t worth it but I can’t find this anywhere – I get the depressing feeling this is one of those cherry picked “stats” generated from taking away a positive score from 100 that we so often find being used in order to prove a problematic point, or maybe one from quite a few years ago, cos most of what I’ve seen hasn’t reflected that.

    Re strikes I’m not that surprised, because it’s only about 30%ish of staff max who are in ucu anyway, without factoring in that a sizeable % of them are in non student facing roles and many don’t go on strike (or for instance strike days might not have coincided with their teaching days). And if students were inside with the strikes they’d be less likely to stress their impact.

    I’m also not surprised that students have bought the ucu line that bosses don’t care about staff cos it’s a very easy narrative to buy into; and the more accurate flipside is a lot less easy to get behind, even if it’s true (the huge debts you’re being saddled with, which at the same time haven’t seen any additional funding for unis since 2013, are not providing uni’s enough money to run themselves easily and can’t fund 25% pay rises plus making all temp staff permanent etc).

    But I also think that had the MAB been more widespread than you would have seen a lot of student support being tested – this didn’t happen though. And in truth, having the chief demographic that’s affected by strike action fully onside is maybe not the amazing tactic you’d think it might be.

      1. Thanks, as I thought this is a misrepresentation isn’t it – “bad value for money” doesn’t mean “not worth it”

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