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Colin Dalziel

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Increasing tuition fees: Can universities add value to the student experience?

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How can universities utilise elearning resources, including eportfolios, in an attempt to improve the overall service given to students in response to the higher tuition fees? Colin Dalziel explains.
This October a new cohort of undergraduates will begin at universities across the UK. These students will have to pay more for their education than their predecessors, due to the Government allowing universities to increase their tuition fees by up to £9,000 per year. The majority of universities took the opportunity to set fees at the highest price level, an increase of almost £6,000, for courses starting in 2012. Many of those universities that didn't do so have already applied for 2013.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, UCAS, is responsible for handling the applications to higher education across the UK. As it was expected that the levels of applications would decrease, UCAS produced a report on the changes in the rate of applications. The report found that for 18 year olds applications did decrease but not significantly, the main decline occurred in the age bracket of 19+ where applicants were 15-20% less likely to apply in 2012 than 2011. The slight decrease in the most popular bracket, English 18 year olds, had previously been growing annually.
The effect of the maintained level of applications means that universities are feeling pressure to offer an improved service. For £9,000 a year students will expect to receive more than their predecessors had received for £3,000. The Bank of England, following the Inflation Report for August 2012, declared that the recession is not yet over and that economic growth is not going to occur in 2012. This may lead to people rethinking whether they will invest in education or whether it would be better to go straight into full time employment. People will only chose to attend university if they believe their investment is going to be worthwhile.
 
"For many universities it will be hard to further develop their facilities without significant investment, so the improvement will have to come from the service given to students and a focus on employability after graduation."
Although there is a substantial increase in student fees, universities will not see an increase in overall funding, but rather a change in where the money comes from. Students are largely unaware of this and so the common perception is that universities will now have lots of extra money to improve services. Consequently university 'customers' will expect improvements, whether this is to the facilities on offer or the quality of the degree. For many universities it will be hard to further develop their facilities without significant investment, so the improvement will have to come from the service given to students and a focus on employability after graduation.
The majority of universities already provide an online learning system for their students, which provides learning content to support course work. However, it could be argued that this software is designed to support the course and not the individual. Overhauling these in-built systems is not necessary, instead universities should seek to utilise supplementary software that will enhance the online learning experience. In addition to the learning content, private online space for each user adds a powerful new dimension to learning. Not just a place to store work, documents and record their learning but tools to enable sharing of work and receive feedback from others.
The undergraduates beginning university this year will be more adept with technology, the internet and word processing than the previous generation. This comes as a result of being raised surrounded by technology, picking up their skills not just from IT lessons but also by using many different forms of social media since their early teens. Universities need to provide mechanisms to exploit these skills to support students through their studies. The latest developments should bridge the gap between learning systems and social networks. This is essential to reflect the working practices of today's students and to ensure online spaces are used to bring in information from all the sources the student may be using: online learning spaces, Google docs or even YouTube. The student must also be able to share their assets with ease - whether for accreditation, application, promotion or any other purpose.
Users will demand the opportunity to create online CVs and showcase their skills and abilities via presentational websites, whilst maintaining control over who has permission to view their work and for how long. The most sophisticated systems are not limited to activities initiated at the university and allow users to log information that they feel could be useful at a later date; this could be information about volunteering or work experience they may have performed. The users are offered the chance to create their own templates for recording information, so if they are carrying out work experience they can build a weekly record of activities that they can later draw upon to support job applications. This helps to strengthen the user's CV and make them stand out to employers.
 
"The place of elearning in the future of higher education is vital, it should offer more than just a compilation of lecture notes; it should support wide-ranging activities and offer a high level of control for students"
Feedback on student work is also an area putting universities under pressure. Increasing group sizes and higher expectation from students means that for many learners feedback is taking too long to be of benefit. They have often progressed onto their next assignment by the time they receive a response about their previous work, which means that they may not learn from their previous mistakes. In order to rectify this situation, some online systems now offer services designed for the institutions and staff managing assessment processes. This is a new area for tutors and management that runs alongside the student's personal learning space; it provides students with the ability to submit work from their personal store and tutors with the option of blind or double blind marking and even inviting external examiners to review work. This leads to a more efficient marking process, hopefully freeing up tutors' time.
The prolonged recession and the prospect of students investing approximately £50,000 in order to graduate (including living costs) will undoubtedly lead to a change in the university system in the UK. Universities are going to have to improve their service in order to maintain the high percentage of students enrolling annually. The place of elearning in the future of higher education is vital, it should offer more than just a compilation of lecture notes; it should support wide-ranging activities and offer a high level of control for students, with tools to encourage recording of their skills and experiences, interaction with others and to support the students in the job market whilst remaining easy to use and practical and ultimately adding value for everyone.
Colin Dalziel is operations director of Pebble Learning, specialist in online assessment and learning spaces
 

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