On university open day every Vice Chancellor prays for sunshine and a clear blue sky. Even ugly campus architecture or a grim urban location can look appealing bathed in the light of a bright autumn morning. After 2011 open days took on an even greater significance as students measured what they saw against the increased cost of undergraduate study and a £9,000 a year tuition fee. I followed these changes from the ‘other side’ of the table. My eldest daughter was part of the first undergraduate intake to pay the increased fees. Attending university open days with her was insight into what this looks like from the point of view of our students and their parents.
On a particularly memorable visit to an elite Russell Group university I sat with her in a languages department classroom for an introductory talk about studying modern languages. Some parents were trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, while other parents are armed with burning questions, fists full of highlighter pens and clutching bright manila document wallets packed with QAA (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education) scores and research rankings.
Ten minutes after the talk is scheduled to start the admissions tutor walks in. He is carrying an armful of prospectuses and what looks like a bucket-sized cup of coffee. ‘I am truly sorry everyone, I got delayed by enquiries at our stall on campus – it’s a bit of a One Man Show today. If you could bear with me, I just need to set up the PowerPoint.’ The portly linguist then took another five minutes to load his presentation. With a blink of the projector his first slide appeared on screen. We are treated to a truly tortuous introductory talk lasting twenty minutes.
‘I am so sorry some of the option courses listed on this slide are no longer available.’ Trying to gloss over another error, he says: ‘agh . . . well those admissions figures are actually out of date now . . . but I can email you the latest figures if you would like me to.’ An earnest parent asks a question about a particular joint honours degree. He replied: ‘Actually, I don’t know whether that joint degree programme will be running next year.’ In a stumbling finale he confessed: ‘perhaps I should have checked the PowerPoint before giving this talk’. It was a sobering and salutary experience that was very much in mind as I prepared a ‘taster lecture in Sociology’ for the Goldsmiths’ October Open Day just a few weeks later.
On that Saturday morning we were blessed with great weather, almost too good. Conditions perfect for sitting in a deck chair rather than a lecture hall. A half an hour prior to my spot I checked the lecture room, loaded the PowerPoint presentation before anyone arrived and left my cup of coffee in the canteen! Fifteen minutes before the scheduled time of the talk prospective students started to file in along with some parents. I had time to kill so I asked a budding sociologist if she had been having a good day. She smiled and said ‘Much better than the other places I’ve been to!’ Listing a series of our prestigious rivals she said she was surprised by how little effort they had put into their Open Days. It seemed to her to reveal something of the smugness of those institutions.
‘Top universities’ know they will be oversubscribed because at this time the government had limited the number of places as a consequence of the cost of the student loans scheme. The result is the institutions she listed don’t have to try so hard. After reflecting on what she said, I replied: ‘One of the few good things that has resulted from the all changes imposed by the government is that we are having to prioritize the student experience and value teaching more than we did in the past.’ For institutions in what is being referred to as the ‘squeezed middle’ our future depends on giving students a better value experience. I heard myself say ‘perhaps, that is why there is so much at stake for us and why days like today matter’.
Looking up I noticed that the parents in the tiered seats were hanging on every word of the conversation. Perhaps for some of them the ‘brand value’ of a degree will start to matter less than what students experience in the classroom. At dinner that night I asked my daughter what she had learned from the numerous university open days she had attended. She replied: ‘Well, your whole impression of a university can be transformed by just one good experience.’ It focuses the mind to think that every member of faculty and staff has that power within their gift on Open Day.