Was your degree worth the cash? How often did you see your tutors – and were your lecturers any good?

This week, underwhelmed undergraduates fired a deafening warning shot to universities, demanding they pull their socks up if they plan to increase tuition fees for higher education.

In future, every uni will need to draw up a document pledging the level of support students can expect from tutors, maximum lecture sizes, feedback on coursework and standards of accommodation.

While this may not sound like big news, it actually is. The so-called ‘students’ charter’ is one of the first clear signals that universities are starting to understand that their students are now their paying customers – and they have the consumer rights to match.

NUS president Wes Streeting welcomed the boost to students’ rights.

“It’s absolutely right that the government should act as a champion for students’ rights and interests and support this work to make it much clearer what we can expect from teaching, facilities and support while offering clear redress when it isn’t delivered,” our man Wes said.

“Too often vague promises are made in shiny prospectuses, raising students’ expectations beyond what’s deliverable in practice. This has led to increasing student and wider public concern about quality and standards across the board.”

In other words, students want to make sure that when they sign up for higher education, they aren’t being sold a lemon.

Even the politicians admitted this development marks a subtle but crucial shift in power between students and universities. David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister said:

“It is clear that since the introduction of variable fees, and because of broader challenges and changes in society, students are more purposeful about what they should expect at university and what the general minimum standard should be across universities in this country.”

Too right, Dave.

Graduate Fog feels this news is long overdue. Already, far too many graduates tell me you paid huge fees for sub-standard lecturers, essay feedback from PhD students only a couple of years older than you – and a glimpse of a professor once in blue moon. Three (or four) years later – and 15k poorer – you quite rightly have questions about what exactly you shelled out thousands of pounds for.

A Times survey of students at Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham universities backs this up. It showed that first- and second-year arts students had an average of just seven hours a week in lectures and seminars. That’s the same as – or only one hour more than – they had before tuition fees tripled in 2006.

In other words, universities are now charging three times more in fees but the teaching hasn’t got three times better. It’s stayed exactly the same.

The students questioned also claimed most of their teaching was done by PhD students or senior lecturers – and that they rarely saw their professors.

History student Alex Harlow, 20, studying at Leeds, complained: “I get six and a half hours of teaching time for £3,500 a year – it’s extortionate.”

However, the students’ demands have not been welcomed by everybody. Many academic staff scoff that undergraduates expect to be spoon-fed their degree. They say students must take responsibility for their own studies – and that taught lectures, tutorials and hand-outs had only ever been designed as small add-ons to students’ own independent study.

On the Times website, one lecturer posted: “I reject complains about the quality of lecture notes [not being good enough]… instead, they [students] are meant to make their own notes. Sometimes it’s appropriate to conclude that students aren’t the best ones to judge what we are meant to do.”

The same lecturer, known only as ‘Herbert Qrypt’, went on to question whether student laziness was the real problem here. “When I’m in a lecturer theatre that contains only 50 of the 140 people who are meant to be there, I end up with doubts about the notion that students want more contact hours.”

But student Stuart McKay, blasted back: “I keep hearing that we should do our own research – well, why bother going to university then? We may as well just to go the local library, which is free.”

*To read the full article in the Times, click here.

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