Can Higher Education Stay Relevant?

Sam AramBy Sam Aram11th February 20209 Minutes

Nine months after graduating, I decided to investigate the most pervasive grievances in the student community, and dig into the statistics to test and validate them as either real or superficial problems. I read into student satisfaction rates, and whilst they’re still relatively high at 83%, there’s been a consistent decline over the last few years. Beyond that, research also shows that 32% of students don’t feel as if they’re getting value for money from their university experience. What transpired from my research is that such interrelated issues tend to be assessed and discussed in isolation, but they collectively have a profound impact on students’ academic results, mental wellbeing and satisfaction.

I graduated in 2019 with a degree in philosophy and a poignant feeling that the value I perceived wasn’t justified. The overwhelming verdict among my fellow graduates is that the academic experience doesn’t do justice to the costs, nor did it meet their expectations in terms of interest and engagement. Despite this, however, I still believe that higher education remains one of the most important and sacred human institutions. Personal identities are crafted, life-long friendships are established and professional relationships are built. But on the academic side, universities seem to be lagging behind.

There’s an array of factors contributing to this disposition. However, there was little statistical or empirical evidence underpinning the discussions we had about such issues. I wanted to know if our misgivings were idiosyncratic problems, disconnected from any tangible, legitimate issue; or whether the points we alluded to were large-scale issues confronting students nationally.

The textbook/library problem

Learning at university should be akin to exploring an untouched forest: a new environment to cultivate interests and engage with new topics and leaders – both within and beyond the chosen degree.

But library services aren’t built for indulging curiosity; they’re filled with overpriced physical copies of core subject reading lists, which are mandated by lecturers who haven’t adapted their curricula to suit contemporary interests. In fact, the 2019 NSS revealed that students representing over 60% of the UK’s HE institutions aren’t satisfied with the learning materials they’re provided with. That’s 3/5 students disgruntled with the provision of basic resources they need to flourish academically.

Furthermore, official figures reported by the University of Essex showed that textbook inflation since 1977 is 1,041% – almost four times the overall rate of inflation. This means that today’s typical student should expect to budget between £450 and £1070 for books and equipment per year, which is outrageous considering the insufficient maintenance loan expected to fund this.

The lack of preparation for the working world

Our traditional notion of ‘skill’ has radically changed alongside technological developments. Skills are traditionally static, teachable and repeatable assets that would feature on a CV; today’s employers, however, value individuals who display flexibility in their capacity to skill-build and a desire to progress.

According to comprehensive research carried out by LinkedIn, modern employers are looking for versatility, the capacity to learn soft skills and an ability to adapt to an ever-changing professional landscape. The Telegraph also reported in 2017 that university career services aren’t adapting to the trends in the professional world, and aren’t encouraging students to invest enough time into learning professional skills. This is significantly impacting students’ transition into work beyond university.

Lack of choice in terms of what to study

A common grievance is the (lack of) choice and variety in what we can study. We all loved our respective courses, but found ourselves frequently subject to units we weren’t interested in. I read philosophy without wanting to study aesthetics or metaphysics, but because of limited class sizes and the finite number of modules, departmental logistics concluded that I undertake 3-month courses in each.

The Guardian released research showing that over 20,000 students registered complaints against their university, citing frustrations with the poor quality of course content and a restrictive module system.

In Defence of Higher Ed

I’m clearly dissatisfied with my academic journey, and it’s clear that the problems discussed are not unique, but rather symptoms of discontent within the wider student community.

But the problems I’ve outlined are only contingent, temporary drawbacks of a system which still gets so much right. Needless to say, my overall university experience was life-changing. Being thrown into such a fast-paced, exciting and deafening social extravaganza is a character-building experience beyond anything else, and universities will continue to attract students for this very reason.

Everybody needs a fresh start at some point in their life, and universities will never cease to provide the perfect environment to build an entirely new and authentic network of friends, professional relationships and personal interests. Going to university without anyone having met you before is the perfect platform for self-expression, as there’s no jury pitting you against past judgements or mishaps; it’s freedom in the purest sense.

But the growing discontent amongst the higher education community must be addressed sooner rather than later by universities if they want to remain both an engine for social development and a prized, worthwhile academic institution. Not fulfilling the academic expectations of students will lead to dissatisfaction, discouragement for future applicants and a reduction in university funding.

Over the coming weeks, I’m going to be exploring the academic journeys that students undertake; I will consider, from the perspective of a recent graduate, how universities can go about solving these key issues, improving their reputation and – most importantly – satisfying their students.