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A Conversation with the New Universities Minister: University Prestige vs Students vs The Taxpayer

By | Published February 22, 2018

Sam Gyimah is the new Universities Minister and he came to the University to discuss his view for the future of Universities and he wanted our opinion as to how progress should be made. So, I decided I wanted to ask Gyimah about the Dubai Campus and new Hotel and Conference Centre after hearing the Vice Chancellor’s response to a question posed by Dan Wootton at the Vice Chancellor’s Question Time about how the centre will benefit students and whether any profit will be directed towards initiatives that benefit students.

Like our Vice Chancellor, the press release for the Hotel and Conference Centre fails to address how the millions funnelled into the project will benefit students. Instead it focuses on the prestige of the university:

 

“This multi-million pound investment means conference and visitor accommodation that really matches up to the prestige and personality of a world-class university.”

 

Therefore, I asked Gyimah whether it is right that, seeing as we are not really going to be paying back our entire student loan realistically, is it right that the taxpayer’s money is being used to fund the prestige of the University rather than the students because after all, it is a student loan for students to have access to university resources not a university loan for universities.

His initial response was ‘Wow!’ while the audience laughed. Gyimah said he was unaware of these projects and that it did not come up with his previous conversations with the Vice Chancellor, so he could not comment on the specifics. He said:

 

“Universities should be mindful that they exist primarily to serve the students. The staff are important, the Vice Chancellor is obviously important, but they are all [there to deliver] a first-class education for students. And therefore, in every step, and every action that should be the criteria that… is taken into consideration. And that is what I want to see across the board and I have no idea about this particular issue… but if there are serious student concerns, I hope that the University will listen to you very carefully and give you good reasons why they did what they did”.

 

I then pressed as to whether the taxpayer should be funding the prestige of the university be that the Hotel or the Dubai campus. Being the politician that he is, he skirted over the question saying that I was asking him to comment on a specific case at which point I said “just generally” to include universities across the UK to which he said:

 

“…but our universities are also international universities and we want to make sure we have great facilities that serve our students and improve the university experience. That’s the principle”. He also said that the VC has heard my question which resulted in some laughter but before I could press for a direct answer to my question, the scene was deliberately diverted away from this situation.

 

Clearly, the question was difficult for him to answer without falling out of favour with the Vice Chancellor and he didn’t directly comment on whether the taxpayer should take the burden of advancing a University’s prestige. However, he did say that universities exist for us and that exist to serve us. If that is the case, then shouldn’t the university discuss such matters with us first to see whether we want such investments?

At the end of the session, Sally Xerri-Brooks, a Communications and Stakeholder Engagement Manager for the University, approached me and discussed my question to the Universities Minister. She has provided this statement regarding the Hotel and Conference Centre:

 

“The University aims to have  diversified income in order to deliver its broad objectives including:  to teach and examine; to further original research; to provide instruction; to advance, disseminate knowledge; and to set up fellowships, exhibitions and awards that benefit individuals and society at large.

Our income comes from a variety of sources, including student fees (representing approx. 40% of total income), funding body grants, research grants and contracts, investment income, donations and endowments, residences and catering and other services. This income is managed centrally, with each unit agreeing targets and income and then receiving a budget to cover the costs of delivering their operations in the areas of teaching, research and other. This model of allocating resources enables investments to be made, into capital schemes, enhanced student services, and units for operations, at a scale that is much greater than if the units had a full allocation of both their income and costs. It supports the delivery of the University as one cohesive organisation rather than a sum of a number of smaller parts. We are committed to delivering an experience to all of our students and staff that encompasses this concept of one University and believe that this resource model enables it  in a very effective way.

Much of the investment in services and facilities across campus since 2008, when this resource model was implemented, have only been possible as a result of this pooling of income supporting the one University approach. We have been able to commit significant sums to enhancing our welfare, counselling, and employability services for students across the University, as well as major infrastructure projects such as the new library, the Bramall, the sports centre, enhancing the University station etc. that have a benefit to all and bring people from across the campus together. These are only possible as we do not view any of our activities in isolation for day to day operations or for financial purposes

In addition, it is worth noting that the hotel will create a surplus which will contribute to the University-wide model outlined above, which will then be reinvested into the institution – and that means teaching, facilities, and benefits for students”

 

When I discussed the situation with her, she said that the hotel is not being funded with tuition fees. She also said that parents of international students would use the hotel, for example, or visitors to the university. This would prevent money leaving the university in terms of providing accommodation to university guests. She also said that money would be funded in student services, but the profit margin would be small. I did ask if students could see a statement of financial position, for example, to see exactly how much revenue was made and exactly how much money would be channelled into student services. She said that the university may consider this.

Xerri-Brooks also said that with the University being able to hold research conferences, our lecturers will be at the top in their field and this would be beneficial for us students because they would be able to teach us about the current and ground-breaking research happening in their discipline. However, being among the top academics and top researchers in the UK, or even the world, does not necessarily translate into increased teaching quality.

During the last academic year, I had to a drop a module because the teaching style was incompatible with how I learn. The lecturer had a dull monotonous voice devoid of passion and had an assistant change to the next slide for him. Unfortunately, one of the modules that I replaced this module with also had lecturers that I found to have ineffective teaching methods. For example, one decided he wanted to imprint in our brains that he was an introvert, but you wouldn’t think he was an introvert because he was standing in front of hundreds of students lecturing. He repeated this at least every five minutes but you could clearly hear in his voice and in how he conducted himself that he was an introvert. I didn’t need telling and I couldn’t deal with his teaching style so left after an hour during the break. I discussed the issues I had with the first lecturer with one of the University’s Deans who admitted that although such individuals may be specialists who are top of their field, they are not always best suited to teaching. If this is the case, then how can these research conferences be of benefit to us?

What students want are lecturers who are engaging and dynamic with their teaching. We want more lecturers like Iain Law and Peter Kerr, not lecturers who simply read off PowerPoint slides. I could read the slides in ten minutes at home, so why would I want to take two hours to get into university (buses) and listen to two hours of someone reading a tonne of words off the computer screen? Iain doesn’t use presentations or scripts. Instead he uses his passion for philosophy to talk to us rather than talk at us. His lectures are much more like a conversation where he explains the concepts, checks that we understand them, questions us about them, and answers our questions. The same goes for Peter. He is bubbly and enthusiastic and doesn’t stay rooted to his computer. Both Iain and Peter are easy to talk to as they speak on our level. They don’t try and act overly sophisticated, clever, or superior to us. They keep our attention focused. They don’t allow the Internet to draw away our attention. If the University are intent on holding research conferences, perhaps they should hold ‘How to Teach Effectively’ research conferences.

Clearly, the University needs to ask us what they should do. There needs to be a greater and more open dialogue between us and them so it’s not us versus them. Personally, I don’t care how many papers lecturer X has published or how much research they have done, and I doubt most students care. One of the questions that Sam Gyimah asked was what does ‘value for money’ entail for students? Well, one thing we want is better quality teaching. I’m not happy to spend the taxpayer’s £9,000 each year to spend my lectures on social media or catching up on reading for other modules because I can’t physically absorb what’s being said at me. I end up catching up on the lecture in my own time.

‘Value for money’ should not only consider the student but also the taxpayer. Every student would differ in their opinion as to what ‘value of money’ means for them. For me, it’s not about contact hours, but about teaching quality, greater support and services for commuting students, and cheaper, or even free, access to facilities (especially if our student loans fund them), and cheaper food. For you, it would be something else. And this is what makes it difficult to address this issue from the student perspective. Regarding the taxpayer, I think they would prefer their money to stay in the country, contribute to the British economy, and support students. It’s a student loan, not a university loan.

I think that what this whole incident with the Hotel and Conference Centre and Dubai Campus has shown is the University’s lack of understanding of what students actually want and need. Perhaps, had the University been open and discussed their plans about their ventures, there may not have been as much outrage over it. There’s still bitterness over the £30,000 wasted on the poster about the Green Heart and, in all fairness, I don’t care about the Green Heart. It will add no value to my university experience. Instead it detracts from it because I spend two hours to get to University to come to a building site and have to take longer routes to get to certain buildings which isn’t beneficial when you have disabilities. And if there is such strong outrage and outpour against such ventures, the University needs to remember they are here to “serve” us. This is a point that Sam Gyimah stressed repeatedly. We pay our £9,000/£9,250 a year for our education and access to facilities and yes, the University has access to other pockets of money beyond tuition fees, but ultimately us students take priority because without us, they wouldn’t be here.