A manifesto policy of the University paying for you to complete a degree elsewhere while studying your own degree is as absurd as it sounds. It would be divisive and damage academic and social communities at York.
Deb, one of two candidates running for Academic Officer, has a flagship policy of giving students access to online courses and degrees to all students. You may be thinking that’s something we already have. Well, this isn’t for a course at the university you pay to study at, the plan is to give us all access to courses from other universities on online platforms and get the… University… to… pay… for… it. Alright, let’s get into this one.
I will start by giving you some background on online providers, the difficulties in implementing such a policy, and most importantly why none of us should want it implemented in the first place.
The last decade has seen the rise of online course providers which promise to open education to students all over the world. At their best, they open education to those who otherwise would have to do without. At their worst, they’re clickbait courses marketed to make a quick buck off the buzzword of the day. Whether it’s the blockchain or NFTs, if there’s a bandwagon, then there’s also a course promising the world.
These are often for-profit providers. One of the leading course providers, edX, was founded by MIT and Harvard as a non-profit alternative, but even edX was sold last year for $800 million. It’s a business and a very profitable one.
Deb’s first manifesto point says that students should get access to global online platforms, naming Coursera, edX, and Udemy. He states that he will be “working on tie-ups with all the major online education and learning platforms to provide free education to University of York students”. The full manifesto point is shown below.
The idea is to give us all access to these platforms and the courses they offer for free. That is, free to us students. It’s expected someone, somewhere along the line will be paying for this access.
During Candidate Interview Night on Thursday, this policy was the focus of the questioning of interviewer Ben Allen. We were told that the courses under consideration usually cost around £99 each per student but a charity will pay for the majority of this cost for all students at York.
On the issue of funding for this initiative, we were told that the university will need to provide a “financial certificate” for all students at York. It is then stated that a charity that will help students get these certificates without any cost once we “provide the economic background for all these students studying here”. In addition, the need to negotiate with each individual platform was recognised.
When pressed further, we were told that the University will have to pay an initial 10-20% of the cost of these courses with a charity covering the rest. The total cost is said to be around £5000-£10,000 for all students at York. Maths fans will be quick to notice that this comes to between 25p and 50p per student at York for potentially many courses, with online degrees also mentioned. Through all of this, it was made clear that everyone should have the option to take up these courses.
You can apply for financial assistance for courses on online course providers such as those on edX. They offer a 90% discount but only to those “who cannot afford to pay full price”. Is that true for the entire student body? No. Even if it was somehow applied to all of us, it would undoubtedly be taking opportunities away from those more deserving. Of those who should be receiving financial support for an online course, wouldn’t you think those already studying for a degree at the University of York should be at the bottom?
For financial assistance, edX requires an individual to provide their annual household income and three essay responses to their questions. There is then a waiting period before a decision is made. Some students will not feel comfortable completing this process and it is likely a large proportion will understandably not want to share their financial information with a third party. Assuming this is the case, then the price of this policy will quickly skyrocket if these courses are still to be offered to all students as has been repeatedly stated.
The ability for such a policy to be implemented is the least of my concerns.
Fundamentally, this policy misunderstands the benefits of studying at a campus university. If, instead of spending time attending societies, club nights, and making the most of everything on offer at York, we had people working away on another degree at an institution full of people they will never meet, I would find that profoundly sad. This over-emphasis on productivity, provided solely through a corporate gaze, is actively harmful. It’s part of a wider problem, not any solution for students.
The social element of university is a vital part of the learning process and our enjoyment of it. An emphasis on online courses to bulk out your CV is reductive. Time outside our courses should be able to be spent as exactly that: time outside of our courses. Having a health work-life balance is particularly hard for students and the pressure to complete additional courses would make this even more difficult.
Having time and energy to complete additional courses or even degrees on top of your existing degree is a privilege. It should be recognised as such. Making this part of the education system at York would entrench this difference among the student body. While one student works part time to afford food and rent, another is being subsidised to get an online degree in the Blockchain. Doing one degree is enough, in fact it’s a great challenge in itself. We shouldn’t take the step of institutionally telling students their degree is not enough.
During the interview, Ben Allen suggested that some would argue the money would be better spent on student activities. I’m one of those people. If this money is forthcoming, fantastic, please spend it elsewhere. As someone who has spent money on courses at Udemy, I couldn’t think of many places I’d like to receive the money less. Any money that may be given to these course providers would be better spent here for the experience of students studying at York, not Harvard or Stanford.
It’s particularly notable that this policy was proposed and defended at a time when staff are striking over pay and conditions. A large sum of money could be better spent nearly anywhere else at this university. Staff working conditions and student learning conditions at the University of York are not improved by handing money to online course providers.
There are much better ways to achieve the aims of this policy. While at York, students should be making connections with other students at York, not though online forums. We have a fantastic student body who bring with them experiences from all over the world. Spend time joining in debates on campus rather than online discussion boards at Harvard. Add to the life of this university and this city rather than being left isolated in a crowd of online courses. That will improve the student experience at York. This policy would only focus our time and attention elsewhere to the detriment of us all.
We could push for more flexibility in optional modules. Being able to take modules from different departments would open up students to different perspectives, fields, and social groups. That would give students new experiences.
Student societies offer everything and more that you could hope for on your CV. More importantly, they enable you to find friendship groups and get settled into university life. Additional grants to enable students to get involved with these societies would help strengthen communities at York and open up existing opportunities to the wider student body.
I find the idea of telling students they should or even need to complete these courses or degrees at other universities while at York to be profoundly wrong. To me, it’s a policy that, rather than standing up for the power of academia at York and trying to improve the experience further, gives in. It capitulates to the marketisation of universities and promotes a study culture that has students already burnt out and suffering.
One can envision a future where universities are seen as platforms rather than providers, a place to go to sit in a library and log on to a course from elsewhere. Just sign on the dotted line and pay as you go. This is a truly miserable scenario and this policy nudges us along that way.
Those who are able to take advantage of these courses are those most likely to already be able to afford them in the first place. It is not a progressive policy but one that I believe in practice would most benefit those who have the time and money to complete these courses in their own time and on their own terms. They’re welcome to do that themselves.
This policy does not help students at York. It should never be enacted.