This week I set about researching a piece for The National Student on students’ reaction to the government’s White Paper on proposed Higher Education reforms.

The paper was finally released six months after its accompanying motion was passed in Parliament last December in the midst of those student protests that dominated headlines across the country.  It sets out proposals which, put simply, are supposed to justify their plans to allow Universities to charge up to £9,000 per year in tuition fees from the academic year 2012/13. Main proposals in the paper include lifting restrictions on the amount of places Universities can give to prospective students with A-Level results of AAB or higher to effectively encourage competition between Universities for the brightest students, and mandating greater transparency of data such as contact hours and graduates’ starting salaries at Universities in order to help potential students decide where they want to apply.

In my mind, the paper does not provide sufficient or original proposals to justify Universities charging £9,000; transparency should already exist at Universities, and considering the fact that the government look set to significantly lose out financially by having to making up the extra funding in student loans, there is no evidence to challenge the idea that the Coalition’s proposals are anything other than ideological.

However, I hold this opinion because I am a bit of a geek and like to keep an eye on student politics and what is going on in higher education (on top of the fact that as an aspiring journo I see it as imperative to understand the politics that affect your potential readership). But now the headline that Unis will introduce 9k fees has been and gone, and we have already expressed anger over these plans, are students other than those with an avid eye on politics and Sabbatical Officers (those who are elected to run student unions) actually interested anymore?

The news of the publication of the White Paper this week was eclipsed by a bigger story in education – that of the teachers’ strike on Thursday. Not a single student I have spoken had heard of the publication of the paper, and in fact, most were oblivious to what a White Paper actually was. When asking one friend, was met with a response of disgust that a newspaper would provide content for whites only. (Sorry James if you’re reading this, but you’ve got to admit that was pretty funny/terrible!)

This obliviousness is indicative of what the government completely miss in their White Paper, and why the reforms will never – in the near future – transform an age old system.

Students do not apply to University because they want an enhanced teaching experience, or want to become, as Vice Chancellor of Plymouth University Wendy Purcell writes in The Guardian, ‘active partners in learning, deeply interested in the quality and richness of the experience.’ No, most students apply to Uni because they  want to live away from home, get drunk, have fun, perhaps sleep around, make some new friends, and hopefully get a good job at the end of it, because it is just what is done after college. (I should probably mention pick up a few traffic cones and signs along the way too).

Yes students want to go to a good, preferably redbrick, University because they don’t want employers to sniff at their degree three years down the line (and this is one of the reasons why the old polytechnics will suffer so much under the new proposals when students will eventually be paying significantly more), and yes students are interested to an extent in information such as contact hours and modules. Yet this information should already really be available to students, and we’ve not made much use of it.

When I applied to University four years ago, I wanted to go to Warwick because it had a good enough reputation to present yourself as someone who could’ve gone to Oxbridge but was a bit too lazy to work that hard, and I would be studying my favourite book in one of the four modules I would have to take in my first semester as an English student there. My decision was firmly cemented on an open day there where I saw students whizzing down the road through the campus on roller blades competing to see how fast they could go by examining those speed signs that tell you how fast you are going over the speed limit; I thought the students and the lifestyle at Warwick seemed fun.

I never got to Warwick though because I wasn’t motivated at college enough to get my predicted grades, and ended up going to Southampton which was my insurance choice because Durham rejected me and I thought the Southampton campus was quite pretty. (Sorry this is turning a bit autobiographical now…)

The point is that I loved every minute of University at Southampton and it had nothing to do with teaching contact hours or my learning experience. Neither did applying have anything to do with such similar motivations. Applying to Uni is a haphazard process which has nothing to do with the factors that it should, or those that the government believe. When prospective students in the future will be comparing Unis (which, all things going ahead as planned, will apparently be competing for these students), it will pretty much be the same.

Unis will up their game in terms of information available to prospective students, and all good redbrick Universities will be similar in terms of contact hours and graduates’ starting salaries. And students will continue to make the decision about where they go to University based on absolutely nothing to do with this.

To prove this point, I spoke to a student at Plymouth University, where as I have mentioned, Vice Chancellor Wendy Purcell explained:

‘Our students are active partners in the learning process and they are empowered to become their best selves. They deserve a rich experience, full of opportunities that challenge them, help them to develop their talents to match what the best employers demand, and help them to become responsible, informed citizens. Our enterprise agenda encourages students to be creative, delivering solutions in teams and applying their learning to help the community, whether through volunteering or supporting social enterprise.’

I asked this student (who would prefer not to be named as they are unnecessarily worried about upsetting their Uni at time when it is considering their final degree classification) why they chose to go to Plymouth.  Did they chose this University because of its enterprise agenda or because it empowers students to become their best selves? ‘No’, they responded, ‘I went because of the city itself. South Devon is a different lifestyle and feel from home; I liked the coast, Dartmoor and the fact that it was a city campus.’

I continued to ask them what they felt they got from Plymouth University that they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. They replied, ‘a passion for surfing. And camping on the beach.’

Mine and this student’s views are repeated across the country every year when college students begin the University application process. Most have in their mind a group of Universities they would like to attend because of their reputation, but after that its fluke. Or what I like to call life. Decisions then rest upon what how far the halls are from campus, what the city is like, what your parents think of the local crime rate, where your other half may go, even something coincidental as the weather on the day that you visit the Uni. Or someone you see on your visit who seems to be having a good time there.

This is what David Willetts and the government are ignorant to. Have they forgotten what is is like to be young and a student?

This is the reason why, for the moment while students are in this age-old mindset, the proposals put forward in the White Paper will make no difference, and why £9,000 will seem like a ridiculous figure. The government want to put students at the heart of the Higher Education system and make them consumers, but students aren’t chasing a product, they are chasing life, experience, fun and (the majority of the time not academic) knowledge. And all these things are free in life.

As a student, that is my reaction to the White Paper. Sorry Willetts, you just don’t get it.

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