What if flashier buildings don’t make happier learners?

First published 3rd August 2016 on the Society for Research into Higher Education’s News Blog

In some respects, students at UK universities have never had it so good. Dusty old lecture theatres are being torn down and shimmering new ‘learning environments’ erected in their place. Between 2013 and 2017, outlay on buildings and facilities at higher-prestige institutions alone matched that spent on the London Olympics (BiGGAR Economics, 2014), with some universities issuing public bonds to raise extra coffers for campus development projects.

PM3199093But how can the UK Higher Education sector be sure that its unprecedented levels of capital expenditure are leveraging commensurate ground-level pedagogical gains? Evaluation mechanisms, where they exist, tend not to be student-centred. For example, the Association of University Directors of Estates reports that income per square metre increased by 34 per cent across the sector between 2004 and 2013. While this might make for a healthy balance sheet, it tells us little about the ways in which staff and students engage with their environment. As Paul Temple noted in his 2007 report for the Higher Education Academy (“Learning Spaces for the 21st Century”), university buildings have the potential to transform how learning happens. The challenge for the sector is how best to assess their impact.

Earlier this year, I published initial evidence from a collaboration between researchers at the University of Manchester and Kingston University. We took one new building at one higher-prestige university, conducted detailed interviews with 10 staff members and 28 students, and surveyed over 200 other users. Positive feedback was common: students relished airy, well lit corridors, with comfy seating areas for pre- and post-session collaboration; open spaces could be ‘colonised’ and made their own; water coolers, and other features associated with workplace environments, drove new conversations.


However, not all responses were as expected. Many students told us that attractive-looking buildings helped them to choose their university, but when asked to rank what would most improve their experience now, fewer than 5 per cent prioritised their learning environment. Students’ primary needs were much likelier to be staff-related – they wanted more academics to be more available more often, both formally and informally.

Among staff, frustration was often expressed about ‘flexible’ spaces that could not be easily moulded to their teaching needs. Though communal areas were welcomed as a means to foster cohort identity, many associated capital expenditure with a tacit expectation that they should teach students in ever-larger groups. The design of buildings was often seen as a reflection of managerial naivety about their role: “I don’t even take a lunch break, let alone go and mingle,” said one in relation to an atrium designed to stimulate staff-student interaction. Others noted that many students lacked the critical thinking and other independent skills that their new learning environments implicitly demanded.

Indeed, a recurring theme in the interviews was the transition from school or college to university, which many felt was being disrupted, not smoothed, by campus architecture. “In college, you knew5images what everything was for,” said one student, capturing the wider view that more guidance was needed for students to exploit communal learning spaces. Few comparisons between school and university facilities favoured the latter. Technology was a particular focus of misunderstanding, with the design of new estates seeming to make untested assumptions about students’ digital learning dispositions and behaviours. While staff struggled to make unnecessarily intricate equipment work, students remarked that they didn’t “need everything all hi-tech all the time” anyway.

Our research, though no more than exploratory, raises important questions about the extent to which universities’ investment in new estate reflects students’ perceived pedagogical needs. It is clear that the sector could better consult about buildings’ design and better evaluate post-occupancy usage. A 2015 report by the Higher Education Policy Institute refers to an “arms race” in capital expenditure, and the risk is that pedagogy becomes the first casualty of universities’ recruitment wars. Only through long-term, systematic evaluation can we know whether the enormous resources being allocated benefit current students as well as lure new ones.

CJHEJones, Steven, Michael J. Sutcliffe, Joanna Bragg and Diane Harris. 2016. “To what extent is capital expenditure in UK Higher Education meeting the pedagogical needs of staff and students?” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Published online: 09 May 2016. DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2016.1181881



Who gains from the grumbles?


Note: this piece was originally published by WonkHE on January 11th 2016.

“My students have paid £9,000 and now they think they own me” runs the headline. It’s one of those anonymous pieces, so the wider context is difficult to figure out, but the author seems troubled by a message that reads “all I’m asking for is a little respect seeing as I pay you £9,000 a year”.

It’s the “blunt, consumerist language” that offends the author, and a number of anecdotes follow, each reinforcing this interpretation. “If you ask me,” quips a colleague in the car park, “all universities are going to need a customer services department before long”. Another claims a student once told them: “I pay you to teach me what’s in the article, not the other way around”. The author recalls how very different they had “acted and spoke” when at university – assignments were completed punctually, guidelines followed diligently, etc. How they wish they could say the same of their students now.

passengers.jpgSuch rhetoric is becoming familiar on English campuses, and the points about unfair workload allocation, expectations of across-the-board excellence, and often counter-productive management culture all deserve to be made forcibly and repeatedly to policy-makers, sector representatives and intuitional leadership teams. But venting at students about how universities are funded is like confronting fellow passengers because your train is running late.

Remember, the student’s plea is not for higher grades, quicker feedback or the guarantee of a graduate job, but for “a little respect”. Is this really a case of neoliberal higher education policy coming home to roost? Or is it something altogether more localised and petty?

images22Perhaps the student was wrong to mention fee levels at all. But let’s not forget the extent to which the 2012 funding system has driven higher education to “hurl the cost of itself at graduates”, as Jim Dickinson recently noted on this site. According to the Sutton Trust, only one in twenty will now repay their debt in full by the age of 40, compared to almost 50% under the previous system. An average teacher will still owe £25,000 by their early 50s. The freezing of the repayment threshold will make an undergraduate degree more costly still and, last year, we saw maintenance grants turned into loans and student nurses stripped of their bursaries.

It’s naïve to believe that such wholesale reconfiguration of the way in which our sector is funded won’t disrupt the nature of undergraduates’ engagement with their university or change academics’ working conditions. That’s exactly why our students were placed at the heart of the system – so they’d behave like consumers and enact the marketisation agenda.

Teaching-Excellence-Framework2However, in many respects, they’ve refused to play ball. Take the proposal to link success in the Teaching Excellence Framework to higher fees. The National Union of Students objected immediately, taking a position of principled disengagement long before the rest of the sector began to follow suit. Yes, there are some individual undergrads who’ll seize their rights as newly-empowered service users to make unreasonable demands on staff as they seek to maximise their return-on-investment. But there are millions of others who don’t measure their experience in solely utilitarian terms and want their time at university to be inspiring, cordial and enlightening.

The nameless author of the piece fantasises about replying with: “Hey student – all I’m asking for is a little respect, seeing as how much you pay makes no difference to my wages, yet the level of support I am forced to offer you takes up 80% of my time despite the fact that teaching still only equates to 33% of my workload.”

Is support for students really something that academics are “forced” to offer? And if we must gripe about our salaries, might it be judicious to acknowledge the inter-generational unfairness that the current funding model precipitates?

arguing.pngBut the bigger question here is who gains from such grumbles. A frostier relationship between students and academics doesn’t benefit those who yearn for campuses of old. Rather, it benefits those who seek to marketise and instrumentalise the sector further. Undergraduates can be framed as dissatisfied customers, then as budding agents of change, while academics can be positioned as ivory-towered and over-protected. Many of the 4,000+ comments beneath the original piece offer precisely this reading.

But the student-academic relationship at English universities is surely stronger than such simplistic polarisations allow. Is a little respect really too much to ask for?

When it comes to higher education policy, Labour is asking itself the wrong question

(Note: I published this piece first at the London School of Economics’ General Election 2015 blog on 06.02.15…)

“How can we bring down the headline £9,000 per year figure?” seems to be a challenge that Labour Party policymakers have set themselves ahead of the General Election, perhaps concerned that higher fees could deter participation, especially among society’s less privileged groups, and that too many student loans are being written off. These are valid concerns and, to some extent, the “intense focus” on the £9,000 headline figure is justified: since English universities became the most expensive in Europe, enrolment rates for mature and part time students have fallen sharply. Moreover, estimates continue to suggest that the new funding system will prove more expensive for the taxpayer than the one it replaced.


But there’s a risk that trying to reduce the headline figure will actually cause further damage. The first thing to remember is that £9,000 is an irrelevant sum to most graduates because they’ll never repay their debt in full. Whether higher fees deter young people from applying to university is difficult to gauge. There’s no evidence to support that position yet, even among those from the lowest socio-economic quintile, but it is possible that early trends are being skewed by a lack of meaningful labour market alternatives.

Labour is reportedly toying with the idea of capping fees at £6,000 per year. But university VCs are already demanding to know how the lost revenue would be replaced. It would be a bold government that asked the Higher Education sector to do it all a bit cheaper. Relative to the share of GDP received, many indicators suggest that UK universities already punch above their weight.

One solution would be to change the income threshold at which graduates begin their repayments. At the moment, it’s £21,000 per year. It would be very easy for any government to raise revenue by reducing this threshold, or by freezing it as inflation rises, thereby making graduates repay more of their loans more quickly. But such a move raises all kinds of equity issues. Remember that when £9,000 fees were introduced the biggest losers, relative to the previous model, were middle earning graduates. As the Sutton Trust noted, the “average teacher” would now pay back around £42,000 of student debt, and still be making repayments when they reach their early 50s. Under the previous system, the same teacher would have repaid around £25,000 and completed at the age of 40. In relative terms, changing the income threshold would hurt low and middle earning graduates more than those on higher incomes, and cutting the headline figure to £6,000 may well have a similar effect.

So what are the alternatives? As a recent report by the Higher Education Commission concluded, there’s no ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to higher education funding. But the question that Labour might want to begin asking itself is “Can those who benefit most from Higher Education contribute more?” Such thinking immediately brings to mind the Graduate Tax, a phrase that increasingly means whatever its user wants it to mean, as several commentators have noted. A ‘pure’ form of Graduate Tax, levied against all income at the same rate, would be controversial for practical reasons – very high earners may choose to leave the country rather than keep paying. It would also raise issues of fairness – should any graduate be required to foot the bill for their degree thousands of times over?

The kind of funding system that Labour might want to think about is one that demands more for longer from the very highest earners. At the moment, it’s possible for some graduates to repay their loans relatively quickly, thereby dodging interest. But what if everyone had to contribute something for the full thirty years? Just a regular flat, fee for those lucky enough to have finished their loan repayments and still be earning a healthy salary?

Would anyone complain about fairness if the resultant income allowed the 2012 funding system, with its safeguards for lower earning graduates, to be preserved at less expense for the taxpayer? And for the all-important repayment threshold to rise with inflation, as promised, for all graduates? Might it even allow further support for students struggling to get by on inadequate maintenance loans, or for hard-hit groups, such as mature and part time students?

The main opposition to a Graduate Tax seems to be ideological rather than economic. We’re told that, in the marketplace of Higher Education, “competition, with suitable regulation, benefits the student”. To treat all graduates equally is to make free market behaviour, such as price discrimination, more difficult. And that raises the toughest question of all: “What are universities for?”

Is the optimum model of Higher Education is one that drives up quality by using dubious metrics to pit university against university? Or should the goal now be to reclaim Higher Education as a public good as well as a private good, and to accept that some graduates will earn more than their peers simply because they enter better-paid professions? Labour need to ask the right question.