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The Value of Everynothing

There is an interesting article in the news today ‘Students say university ‘value for money’ falling’. I thought it interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it was something I warned of a few years ago, and, secondly, because it comes at a time when students are voting in ever increasing numbers.

When fees were mooted I tried to advise my then HoD that it would open a door for consumer complaints, due in part to the notion that students could now put a ‘value’ on their education. Far from allowing students to see how much things cost and so understand they should put in more effort to gain the highest qualification possible, I advised it would allow them to evaluate every teaching session for a sense of ‘value for money’. This would now be the overriding concern of students rather than seeing how hard staff work to make sessions function as they should, student would sit back and silently say – “impress me”. This despite them not actually knowing what that might mean in real terms, other than whether the topic/delivery bored them or not.

My colleagues suggested that this could easily be negated by showing students how their money was being spent and why it was good value. Students of course, not being ones to understand that their fees pay for administrators, campus security, water bills, photocopying paper, telephone calls and personal tutorial time, as much as for the poor lecturer who has to excite them day after day, week after week.

I also pointed out that the rumours were true, teaching staff do spend less contact time with students, not out of choice, but out of necessity and workload ‘orders’. I for instance was only in front of a class for 10 hours a week at the time. However, it takes two hours to design, prepare and produce each hour in a class. This is after all HE and so there is no national curriculum to draw upon. In many ways, it would be useful, given that for every hour of class time I actually have four hours of non-teaching duties.

Some of you are now doing the maths on that and have come up with the result that fitting this into a 38 hour week is not possible, so must be untrue. However, I can assure you it is not untrue, my working week does span the 60 hour divide. I work most evenings and weekends and do not take leave until the summer months when I simply must have a break.

Of course this ‘summer’ time is when I am supposed to be at my most active non-teaching and non-administratively. So, instead of using my annual leave for relaxing, I am rushing round researching and writing. Yes, this will aid any career aspirations I might have in the long run, but in the short run, it is tiring. Other’s would use this leave (holidays) to go on holiday, or to do things with/for their family. Instead I sit forlornly looking out the window at the sun, listening to the sounds of people having fun, wishing I was them.

These are the things students should be made aware of, not the cost of photocopying paper. For them such trivialities are irrelevant; they focus on what they can see in front of them day-to-day – the lecturer. If my time is spent on non-teaching things, it is impossible to be in front of them for as long as they think in necessary to provide value for money.

You are probably wondering about that mention of voting earlier. Well, students voted in larger numbers this time and for parties that promised to eradicate fees if they won and even back-date that. Now that is ‘value for money’ in anyone’s book. The message that students pay for a host of things they use but do not think helps them gain their degree, is not getting through.

Of course it probably never will in a consumer focused society that turns everything into a cost. After all, who cares about workers in factories making high-end phones, it is only the quality of the phone that matters. Shoddy goods are made because workers are treated badly and paid little for their efforts.

Hang on, are there similarities here with how HE staff are treated by their employers? Low pay or below inflation pay rises, check. Staff expected to work more hours than they are paid for, check. Staff criticised for not being the ‘best’ or ‘most innovative’ lecturer, check. Staff criticised for not publishing at A* level, even though they have little time to do so, check. Staff criticised for not being ‘available’ to students 27/7, check. The list goes on, but you get the drift I am sure.

Students are the middle-aged voters of tomorrow, if they know the value of nothing today, then the future is going to have to be based on a consumerist notion of value in things, rather than people.

Perhaps we could put tags on everything to show the cost of each and every process on campus. 10p for flushing a toilet, 5p for loo roll, 50p for the lights being on while in a lecture, £2 for a lecture, etc..

That of course, is a recipe for a disaster no sane person would want.

So we are left back at the beginning, education is either free or someone has to do some very detailed explanations of the ‘value of things’. It would probably fall to the poor old lecturer again to do this as they are the very front-facing friction point for students. ‘Is that another job I have to do as part of my workload?’ Oh dear.

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