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High fees push students towards the age of sobriety

Sarah O'Connor
Thursday, 21 Nov 2013 | 1:57 AM ET
Clerkenwell | The Agency Collection | Getty Images

"We Are Young," a pop anthem about a drunken night out, plays softly in "The Lost Hour", a pub near London's Greenwich university. A year and a half ago, it would have been all too appropriate in what was then a sticky-floored student bar. Now it is an echo of a former life. This is one of five student bars the owner has converted into more traditional pubs amid a quiet shift in the psyche of Britain's university students.

Stonegate Pub Company, which owns more than 500 pubs and bars including these five, has been quick to notice a change among its student customers as they adapt to higher tuition fees and a tough economy. "There is no doubt at all that higher tuition fees have impacted the way students are behaving," says Ian Payne, the company's chairman. "I'm appalled to admit they drink less and study more."

Peter Marks, chief executive of Luminar, Britain's biggest nightclub operator, has noticed the same trend. Students are still partying but "there's definitely less emphasis on alcohol," he says. "Pre-exams we've been quieter this year than in prior years as people have really put their heads down and studied . . . Nine thousand pounds is a sobering enough number for anybody."

This time three years ago, students were flooding the streets of Britain's big cities to rage against the government's decision to triple tuition fees to £9,000 a year. But academics and students say a new mood of seriousness has taken hold since then, instilled by the rising price of degrees and the difficult jobs market.

Students are not behaving like helpless victims of circumstance. Instead they are demanding more – both from their universities and from themselves.

Dr David Bainbridge, an admissions tutor for arts and humanities at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, fears this has come at a cost. "Being a teenager is a time to try new things, to be self-involved and foolish," says the academic, who is also author of 'Teenagers: A Natural History'. "I do think we might be creating a generation of prematurely middle-aged people."

There has been a steady and well-documented decline in alcohol and drug use among the young over the past 15 years. But on top of that demographic trend, which is happening in many countries, Shabna Zaheer has noticed a more sudden transformation during her three years at university.

In her first year at the University of Greenwich's Medway campus near Gillingham in Kent , she rarely went to the library and did not know many others who did. "This year, just everyone's there . . . even the first and second years, it's just where you hang," the 20-year-old says. In contrast, the student bar is "completely empty most nights".

She moved into student accommodation this year after living at home for the first two years of her degree. But she has found herself short on money and snowed under with her studies and a part-time internship. "It's just not as fun as I thought it would be."

A study of 17,000 people who graduated in 2009 suggests that students are right to worry about their grades. More than 20 percent of graduates with a "2:2" class degree had gone on to suffer six months or more of unemployment, and about 40 percent ended up in non-graduate jobs. For those with first class degrees, the proportions were 10 percent and 20 percent respectively.

Students are pushing their universities harder too. Francesca, who did not want her last name published, is a third-year at University Campus Suffolk, a multi-college institution spread across the county. She says she feels sorry for her lecturers, who have been on the receiving end of students' determination to get "value for money". It is not uncommon for students to break down their fees and figure out exactly how much they are paying for each lecture.

"If you bought a packet of eggs from the supermarket and they were all broken, you'd take them back, but that's something you can't do with education," she says. "So if you can do anything to change the poor education that you're getting, then you will."

Student unions are struggling to figure out how best to handle students' new sense of themselves as consumers. "You don't want to be setting people against each other in a combative way, you want students to think of themselves in partnership with the university," says Richard Brooks, president of Hull university's student union.

Hull's union bars have not experienced any decline in trade, but Mr Brooks has noticed students are more assertive about their education. "From the two years I've seen so far [of students paying £9,000 fees], they want different things from their education. It's about the quality as well as the quantity – having more face-to-face time, more choice."

The most tangible expression of the changing dynamic between students and academics is the website Michael Bulman set up this year after he returned from a year at an American university. "Rate Your Lecturer" was inspired by similar websites in the US where students write reviews of their lecturers, much like people rate their hotels on TripAdvisor and their books on Amazon.

Mr Bulman's site has had about 100,000 views since it started in April. He says it should help students pick courses based on teaching quality. "It's a huge amount of money now so you really have to pay more attention . . . And I think it's only right and proper that there's more information out there." About 85 percent of the reviews so far have been positive, he says.

But the site has already stirred up some resistance and disquiet among lecturers. A blog post by Professor Bill Cooke, who teaches management at Lancaster University, has gone viral around the academic community. It is called "We Are Not Dancing Bears".

"If my occupation makes me personally the subject of anonymous, public comments about my day-to-day performance or appearance that they and anyone else can read, then that is not the job I signed up for," he wrote.

He thinks the relationship between academics and students is still in flux. "We can create the culture," he says. "We shouldn't be painting ourselves into the corner of treating students as consumers."

In many other ways, he finds this generation is a joy to teach. "They are more adult and mature, I think, than previous generations," he says. "They're not workaholic and they're not dull, but the enthusiasm for learning is there . . . I think they are remarkable."

Additional reporting by Helen Warrell

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