Over the past few years, students have rarely left the headlines. Alongside the comparisons and rankings of various universities, journalists have been keen to thrust the voices of students, academics and other members of staff into the public eye. The ripples may settle temporarily but the whirlpool remains, and the concerns of today’s students are coming through loud and clear.
The increasingly pressurised nature of the university experience has been attributed to the steep rise in tuition fees and job markets that are only becoming more competitive. The Guardian’s Annual Survey of Student Experience found that 87% of Freshers struggle to cope with these social and academic pressures. It is not surprising, therefore, that universities have experienced an increased demand for mental health support that often results in students waiting months for an appointment to discuss their well-being – even less surprising if we are to believe what the statistics say about young people drinking more responsibly. I would like to use my student experience to examine what is really at the heart of the struggle for a degree.
Last week, I was given the result of my Masters. MA Distinction: quoted on my certificate as ‘the highest award available.’ After a long, hard slog, I had done it and now I couldn’t wait to don my cap and gown. Still in a state of disbelief, I emailed my lecturer to ask about graduation as I hadn’t heard anything. She replied to say that booking was open, with instructions to find the required page hidden in the help section of the university’s website. Upon finding the right page, I was informed that booking was now closed, and my ceremony fully booked. My happiness vanished. Was that it? A door closed just like that? I emailed the student records team to explain that I hadn’t received any information about my graduation and had wanted to attend with my family. Did they have any tickets left? After a few days, I received this automated email:
Thank you for contacting the Student Records team
Your email has been assigned the following Ref Number: 105052
Staff will endeavour to respond to your enquiry as soon as possible.
If you require an update on this job, please visit the portal.
I eventually rang Student Records. They told me that the reason I hadn’t heard about graduation was because postgraduates are lazy about checking their student web pages, but that they could find some tickets for me. Although this story ends happily, this initial bureaucratic response to a personal problem was far from reassuring.
This is just one of the idiosyncracies students experience as a result of a bureaucratic system. Last year, my peers and I were asked to register our module choices well before the start of term. However, because there was a problem with the system that prevented us from enrolling on the course, the lecturers had each class down with far fewer attendees than was the case, and we were consequently crammed into small rooms. It took several weeks for us to be moved to rooms that could accommodate our classes because our need for somewhere bigger involved negotiating a whole new time table.
Like most institutions, my university requires students to book all appointments through the online portal. This means that although sounding like something out of DR Who, the portal becomes an essential gateway to accessing careers advice, campus events, and, you guessed it: mental health services. Once the booking has been made, the student receives an automated email of similar clinical coldness denoted above.
And that’s before we hit my experiences as a disabled student. As I’ve been blind since birth, I knew that I would have to make certain preparations before starting the university. I had deferred my entry for a year so that I could go galivanting abroad. I reasoned that an advantage of this was that the institution would have lots of time to put the necessary adjustments in place for when I arrived, and, before heading for my plane, I sent an email to the disability team to ask them to make my lecturers aware of my needs. Alas, when I walked into my first lectures, I was greeted with a mixture of bewilderment, indifference and panic. My lecturers didn’t know that I was coming, and my studies would pay the price. It took me a year longer to complete my degree because my lecturers weren’t prepared and were unsure of how to support me. I had to watch the friends I’d made graduate the year before me and leave me behind. In that first year, I had gone back to the disability team to ask why the lecturers hadn’t been made aware, despite my request. Their reply was that I hadn’t signed the appropriate form which enabled them to share details of my disability with other parts of the university.
A recent news story featured James Murray, the father of a first year student who killed himself at Bristol University, and how he has campaigned for better data sharing in universities.
Guardian journalist Jon Wakeford also advocates for a more joined up approach between the academic, social, and residential faculties to improve the transition to higher education. I recently discussed this with my lecturer, who felt that the disconnect ran deeper than between departments.
“There is a big difference between the marketed experience – the things that the people at the top think the student experience is about – and what it’s actually like to be a student here,” he said.
This brought to mind the occasion when part of our tuition fees was spent on replacing the old, shabbier chairs in the lecture rooms with aesthetically pleasing multicoloured plastic ones. I would miss the old seats every time I left a lecture with an aching back, and once remarked that we should make the Vice-chancellor try sitting on these chairs.
I asked my lecturer how he feels teaching has changed over the years.
“People are stuck to their phones,” he said. “They don’t look where they’re going, they don’t look at each other. I had to get used to students having their phones out when I’m talking. It’s like there’s a fear of having that connection.”
It reminded me of when he had taught my class and joked that:
“If I collapsed at the front of the class, you’d take a picture of me and I’d be all over Facebook before I’d regained consciousness!”
My lecturer’s views may seem far-fetched, yet I am left wondering whether this disconnection between the corporate and the real is responsible for students’ fear of making the connections they need to succeed and feel supported. In a world where you know longer have to attend an open day to find out what university’s all about – you can participate in an interactive tour, after all – what message are students being given? What happened to being able to talk to someone on the phone, or even face-to-face, when there’s a problem?
Having recently received the mark for my dissertation, I asked my lecturer if I would be able to collect the two hard copies I was required to submit. She informed me that I should be able to go and pick them up from the library. I reached the library to discover that I couldn’t just take my work back; I had to ask the assessment team to let me know when I would be able to do so. I have since sent emails to various departments in the hope of reaching the one that will enable me to collect my work. Most of my requests have reported as undelivered.
Your experiences mirror my own. Not at University but through the health system. One of the disadvantages of allowing/encouraging local management of public services like health and education is that there is little consistency in basic administrative functions which are usually underfunded and seen as an unimportant overhead. Why spend money on services which bring no higher educational kudos when it can be spent on more equipment or better facilities to make our university easier to market to the next intake.
No wonder students are struggling. When I went to university (1968) the first thing that happened was that all of us were allocated a personal tutor. This person was responsible, not only for us making the necessary academic progress towards acquiring a degree, but anything that might affect our welfare. If we had a concern on any aspect of university life, all we had to do was ask for an appointment with our tutor. They weren’t trained psychologists but they cared and that was what mattered.
The experience of the blind student (whom I happen to know personally) underlines that fact that universities are able to cover up a general lack of caring in a welter of bureaucracy while claiming to provide comprehensive support.
I would add that this bureaucratic attitude seems to pervade the whole of society now, including the world of business. I recently had occasion to ring the personal services department of a credit card company. Before I could get through I had to enter my 16 digit credit card number. What if you’re blind? What if you’re dyslexic? Blatant discrimination! Do they care? Apparently not.
It’s desperately sad and urgently needs to change.