By Professor Susan Bassnett, Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies
I can't ever remember a time when universities were such a hot topic of conversation. The funding debate has focussed the attention of the general public on universities in ways that I would never have imagined possible. In just the last week I have found myself having to answer tough questions about the cost of university education in such diverse places as a diner in the City of London, my local village pantomime and a pub on the moors outside Barnsley.
And one of the biggest and toughest questions of all goes to the very heart of the matter: what guarantees can students and their families have that the money they spend on university education (increasingly large sums of money) is money well-spent? Few people believe government propaganda about how graduates will earn hundreds of thousands of pounds more during their working lives than people without a degree, and most people thankfully don't only see a degree as a means to an end, but recognise that it is the totality of the experience of three years at university that counts. So how can we at the University of Warwick start to answer that question? Can we guarantee that anyone running up debts to study here is making the right choice?
There will always be people who take the sour view and tell you that university was a waste of time and effort, just as there will always be people who were so thankful to leave home that they will recall their university years in a rose-tinted haze. But I believe we do pretty well at Warwick in providing value for money and the alumni who stay in touch and contribute so generously to our bursary scheme seem to share that view.
For the Warwick approach has been to try and ensure quality of life on the campus as well as quality of education, and that kind of quality is hard to measure and, thankfully, cannot be graded by some daft Quality of Life Assurance Agency. To provide guaranteed quality of life, we have to think for ourselves and measure success by the response of people who live and work here.
A step in the right direction is Warwick's view of the university as a community made up not just of academics and students, but of thousands of people who contribute in all kinds of different ways. A campus is a little microcosmic city - we have caterers and cleaners, gardeners and painters, drivers and porters and security staff, chefs and waiters, we have secretaries and administrators and financial experts and technicians with a huge range of skills and yes, we also have students, lots of them and academics who teach those students and contribute mightily to the national need for high quality research. All these people interact on a daily basis, and with almost 4,000 people working for the University, Warwick is one of the principal employers in the local area.
Recently we have gone a step further to develop our belief in the idea that a university consists of the total community of all the people who help it to function by creating a new committee. Yes, I know that sounds like a dismal step to take in a world where committees proliferate like bugs, but this one is different. It represents an amalgamation of a number of different committees, including those responsible for residential accommodation, welfare and sport, so it is effectively part of a stream-lining process, and it is called simply the Campus Life Committee. We met for the first time this term and discussed such different topics as student accommodation, religious life on campus, welfare services generally, landscaping, car-parking and the topic that exercises so many of you, catering. People aren't exactly rushing to praise the catering facilities on the Gibbet Hill or Westwood sites and the new Business School and Lakeside complexes point out that a nice coffee shop would be a definite improvement.
The Campus Life Committee also has a keen interest in the exciting changes that the University is embarking upon with the acquisition of the National Grid Building. Formerly a collection of unfinished buildings in a muddy field site on the edges of Coventry, Warwick is now renowned as one of the best-maintained campuses in Britain and is expanding in all directions. Once we have the new building operational, the shape of the campus will alter yet again, and one effect will be to draw Lakeside and Westwood psychologically closer to the rest of the University. We need to think about how best to enhance the changing face of the campus and how to get the most out of the tremendous possibilities that open up before us.
Which brings me back to my starting point about guaranteeing value for money. We can guarantee high quality teaching, cutting edge research, one of the country's lowest staff-student ratios. But we can also guarantee well-maintained buildings, a campus that is ecologically sound, lovely grounds, lakes with wildfowl
(not everyone would see the wildfowl as a bonus, but those of us who think ducklings are cute are happy), conference facilities that are the envy of every other campus in the UK, a fully equipped TV and broadcast studio, the best Arts Centre complex outside London, a refurbished Students' Union, shops, bars, night-life, and a sculpture trail. And we can guarantee well-run welfare services, a marvellous nursery, a Chaplaincy Centre at the heart of the campus, and decent working conditions across the board, all of which contribute to the general feeling of well-being and positive energy that so many visitors to Warwick comment on.
Our best answer to anyone unsure about whether a university like Warwick offers value for money is surely to urge people to come and take a look at us. And the best way to ensure that we continue to improve is for any of you out there who have views on how campus life could be made better for everyone is for you to send in your thoughts. We can't guarantee to fix everything immediately, but we can certainly take issues you raise on board.
If you would like to add your own comments on the issue of university as community and campus life at Warwick, please visit the Campus Life Forum Section