Students Are Waking Up to Slipping Standards - And Universities Need to Take Notice

26/01/2012 22:16 GMT | Updated 27/03/2012 10:12 BST

David Willetts has this week revealed that increasing numbers of students are lodging official complaints to the universities watchdog over teaching quality after failing to get the degree class they expected.

Of course, some will argue that the students who have complained simply should have been working harder. The all-partying, no-studying undergraduate is a stereotype often utilised in debates about standards within higher education.

But would these students really have taken their complaints all the way to the top if deep down they knew that too many late nights and days wiled away in front of trash TV were to blame? The process requires the student to exhaust all internal appeal at their institution before an official investigation can be launched by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

This demand for quality signals the dawn of a new breed of student: the consumer. And it is no surprise that behaviour like this is rising in correlation with the fee increase. Higher education is becoming a numbers game, with students understandably determined to get the most they possibly can for their money.

In theory the percentage of students achieving each degree class should remain constant, but it will be interesting to see whether the price hike acts as an incentive for students to push harder for a first or a 2:1 in order to ensure that the debt they are undertaking is worth it.

This would increase pressure on academics to deliver; but the problem comes with the fact that the actual cost of delivering a degree is not increasing - merely the proportion of that cost which must be paid by the student. With no increase in their pay packet there will be little incentive for many lecturers to put in the extra hours. This could lead to a worrying situation where students are quite rightly demanding the highest quality of education for their substantial expenditure, but with no funding to meet these increased demands.

The problems within the higher education system are multiple, and these need to be considered if we are to expect students to willingly put themselves in three times more debt. The pool of 18-year-old with the financial support to go to university on a whim without a concern for its relative value will be vastly reduced.

Particularly in arts subjects, standards do seem to vary widely between different courses and institutions. Perhaps it is time that a system of UK-wide regulation on marking was introduced. The sharp divide in worth between the 2:1 and 2:2 degree classes is also one that needs to be addressed. And then there is the issue of contact hours.

I, along with many of my colleagues, was extremely frustrated with the four hours of contact time with tutors that I received in the final year of my English literature degree at a Redbrick institution. Obviously teaching quantity does not necessarily equate with quality, but it is highly unlikely that more teaching time would lower student satisfaction. One of the incentives for me to study on the MA course in journalism that I am currently enrolled on was value for money, with four full days of teaching a week as opposed to four hours. A theory-based arts postgraduate course, to me, was simply a waste of money in light of the amount of teaching I would recieve.

The universities that will survive the fee increase are the ones that can convince the new, pennywise student that they are committed to not only maintaining but improving their education, and find creative ways of offering an enhanced experience - or at least one which engages with the students needs - on the same limited budget.