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  • Heather Cleal

‘Overpaid Chancellors, Underwhelmed Students’: Are UK students destined to be shortchanged?

© Melissa Limon

A distinct disappointment is being felt across UK higher education, including creative institutions, with students paying upwards of £40,000 for a wholly underwhelming experience

For students within UK higher education, graduation ceremonies are fast becoming a very literal stage for protest. During my own graduation just a couple of weeks ago, university staff were seemingly caught off guard when a large white banner was unfurled and paraded across the stage, painted with the words ‘overpaid chancellors, underwhelmed students’. The sentiment behind the statement was palpable. It was one that clearly struck a chord with the majority of graduates and family members in attendance, judging by the eager applause and cheers that quickly filled the auditorium.

It was a protest that as a recent graduate, I could heavily relate to. Whilst I feel obliged to note that my personal student experience was largely positive – thanks to the engaging teaching I received and the wonderful, inspiring classmates I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by – there were also countless times throughout my studies when I was left feeling shortchanged. For instance, by studying at a creative institution I encountered a distinct gatekeeping culture whereby certain facilities, such as photography studios, were near impossible to access as a student of an apparent lower creative priority (for context, I studied MA Fashion Journalism as opposed to the courses more inherently focused on design). What’s more, a lack of free or subsidised printing services meant that, as a media student, I was left to finance and produce my final editorial project independently. Perhaps it was plain naivety that led me to expect anything different, but after paying over £11,000 in tuition fees – and digging myself even deeper into student debt – I couldn’t help but feel cheated that I was the one forking out for these seemingly basic resources.

Of course, this isn’t solely an issue at creative institutions. A distinct disappointment, as witnessed through the protest at my graduation, is being felt across the UK with students paying upwards of £40,000 for a wholly underwhelming experience. It’s a problem which has been undeniably exacerbated by the pandemic, during which the vast majority of teaching was moved online and the campus experience was sacrificed altogether. We’ve all seen the footage of the students who were essentially detained in their student accommodation when the national lockdown was first enforced; some protested with placards reading “students in cages 2020”, whilst others spelled out their frustrations via post-it notes displayed in their windows. It’s an issue felt even more acutely at universities specialising in creative courses and the arts, where resources and collaboration simply cannot be emulated behind a screen and tuition fees often exceed the national average.

Those bizarre and disorientating months of lockdown have since been left behind, yet UK universities still appear to be playing catch up. At the beginning of this year, the BBC reported that 28% of courses were still offering hybrid teaching, as opposed to just 4.1% in the year before the pandemic. Elsewhere, statistics collected by Whatuni show that student satisfaction levels in 2023 are still yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. For Tia O’Donnell, a Fine Arts graduate from Central Saint Martins, she chose to protest at her graduation ceremony in 2022 with a banner reading ‘I want a refund’. Detailing her experience, Tia explains how on her first day back of her final year, tutors broke the news to students (via video call, naturally) that their physical degree show would be cancelled and moved online, despite covid restrictions having been lifted at this point.

It strikes me how if it were a different demographic whose services were being so blatantly neglected, it would spark public outrage. Who then, is standing up for students? There are some positive in-roads being made, in the form of Student Group Claim launched by the legal team at Harcus Parker and Asserson, who are currently representing thousands of students whose university experience has been affected by both Covid-19 and strike action. As of the 17th of July 2023, the High Court ruled in favour of students from University College London (UCL) launching legal action against their institution, without the need to first go through UCL’s internal complaints procedure. Acting as a test case, a ruling in favour of the Student Group Claim would ultimately pave the way for lawsuits against other UK universities, including creative institutions.

In the meantime though, students continue to be squeezed and ultimately deprived of both the education and experience they have paid for. This brings me back to the original statement waved across my graduation stage, concerning the justification of ‘overpaid chancellors’. In a climate when the rest of us seem to be receiving considerably less value for our money, why do University Chancellors continue to receive such colossal pay packages? Between 2021-2022, the average salary for a Vice-Chancellor of a Russell Group university increased by 6% to £413,000, according to The Times. Over at arts institutions, salaries remain just as disproportionate. As a chief-executive, VC’s are responsible for leading their respective institutions whilst serving as its administrative and academic head. It’s understandable why student frustration is directed at these figures, but it feels unlikely that any reduction in their salary could improve the experience for students indefinitely.

It’s something future students will have to carefully consider, following the recent announcement of changes to the way loans will be repaid for incoming students in 2023. What’s more, we all know that university isn’t solely about the certificate at the end, but rather the entire experience; the contact hours, the facilities, the support. If the general consensus continues to be one of disappointment and confusion, higher education will invariably lose its appeal amongst younger generations.

It begs the question of whether today’s demands on universities have become unsustainable; and consequently, are students destined to feel shortchanged? An “explosive growth of competitive revenue” within the higher education system has transformed universities into some of the biggest businesses operating within the UK according to Mark Corver, the former director of analysis and research at UCAS. Creative institution or not, the priority of any competitive business remains its profit. Then again, we all know that a company’s greatest assets are its customers, so there remains some hope to be found in the power possessed by students. Holding our universities to account is vital then, as those proudly waving their banners across their graduation stage will tell you.


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