Tuesday, January 25, 2011

GUEST POST Standards matter in higher education, not just participation rates

The author is a university lecturer on a short-term contract who wishes to remain anonymous.

I believe that higher education should be free, but also that it should be higher education. Recent debates within the Liberal Democrats (and beyond) have centered upon the first of these propositions, but barely touched upon the second.

For instance, Evan Harris writes "The biggest challenge facing higher education is the failure to attract students from poor backgrounds and the negative impact that tuition fees have on those who are debt-averse from aspiring or applying to university," while for the Social Liberal Forum "the key principles in Higher Education [are] widening participation, fair access and financial equity".

Dr Harris and the SLF are splendid liberals and all round Good Things, but are they losing sight of the intellectual goals of university education?

Many academics now find themselves defending an uninspiring status quo, for fear of something worse. I don't know any colleague who denies 'dumbing down', or who is satisfied with the quality of secondary education. Yet it is difficult for them to acknowledge this, for fear of inadvertently supporting attacks on universities.

For example, the Humanities and Social Sciences Matter campaign includes serious, well-meaning academics. They argue, amongst other things, that "university degrees should educate independently-minded, critical and informed citizens", and that we "cannot afford to abandon the funding of humanities and social sciences to the market".

Admirable sentiments, yet I'm unconvinced that these or other academics really believe that most current humanities graduates are 'independently-minded, critical and informed citizens'. Were this the case then the increase in graduate numbers over recent decades would have been accompanied by some sort of rise in the standard of public debate, civic participation etc etc.

Instead we have seen the opposite. This shouldn't really need illustration, but consider the general election turnout rate among students was 50 per cent, compared to 65 per cent in the population as a whole. (And I don't think that students and graduates are shunning the public sphere to enjoy satisfying private intellectual lives instead.)

My observation over the last decade at four old-established universities, and comparing notes with colleagues at many others, is that only a minority of humanities students are engaged in higher education. (I teach in the humanities, so don't have the experience to comment on the sciences.)

Most are not required to do nearly enough work to occupy their time, and few are motivated to do any serious reading. Six essays a year is pretty much the norm for required writing. Most departments and courses are far too big for academics to sustain intellectual relationships with their students, or students to know each other. Many students come to weekly seminars having done no preparatory reading, for them to have looked at one article or chapter is in many cases the most we dare hope.

Attributes that should be the basis for higher education (such as geographical knowledge, proficiency in a foreign language, or the ability to write coherent grammatical prose) cannot be taken for granted. This isn't to say that students don't learn at university. On the whole they seem to enjoy what learning they do, and their knowledge and analytical abilities improve. There is an inspiring minority who really are engaged. But being intellectually awake is not a requirement for higher education. Should we be satisfied with this?

So, is this the fault of academics? No, staff:student ratios our outside our control, while it shouldn't be our job to teach students to write in paragraphs, or to instill in them a basic work ethic. (School teaching is a vital task, but it is not ours.)

We live with an anti-intellectual consumerist public culture, and a wretched school system in which both state and private sectors pursue qualifications at the expense of education. New Labour's attempts to use university entrance as a blunt tool of social engineering were absurd.

Cuts in funding, and the further commodification of degrees, certainly won't help matters. But the social problems of ensuring fair access to higher education shouldn't obscure the intellectual challenges faced by universities.

And if the Liberal Democrats don't acknowledge this then who will?


Charlieman said...

Thanks, anon.

When I was 18, I chose to go to university a) because I was hungry for education and b) to experience more of the world. Point c) to attain work skills was not a serious consideration, even though I followed a vocational degree. My choices were based on intellectual rather than career ambitions.

School friends chose to go to work at 18 with study as a sideline. It was an option that I considered too. I'm a believer in continuing education, which is not necessarily higher education.

In the last six months, have you read anything in the popular press about adult access to education or mature undergraduates? That is a debate that needs to be under way before we talk about reducing access for 18 year olds. Citizens have to believe that continuing education is as worthy as HE and that they are not locked out if they wish to study a degree later in life.

I work at a university and still have a few colleagues who got their first job here based on A levels or an HND, followed by a part time degree. How plausible does that scenario sound for employment today?

My understanding is that UK students in science/engineering/medicine are well motivated. They have to put in the hours. The notable change is the quality of teaching material; teachers are better at teaching.

Do you use a VLE such as Blackboard? I am interested in your experience: whether students use them for virtual tutorials or community learning, an alternative to face-to-face.

Matthew Huntbach said...

Maybe students in Medicine are well motivated, but that may be due to the way British snobbery pushes anyone who is good at science in school towards medicine, starving other science and engineering subjects of talent. An Engineering degree is largely applied Maths, but to most Brits, an "engineer" is a man in overalls wielding a spanner, and we have stupid politicians and educationalists pushing schoolkids into useless "vocational" (ie. box-ticking and buzzword memorisation) qualifications under the mistaken impression that this rather than decent Maths is what will get them university places in things like Engineering and my subject, Computer Science. Then, since we have to fill our places, we have to take them, or at least those unis away from the top-ranking ones do.

Matthew Huntbach said...

The uni where I teach is somewhere in the middle of the pecking order, we do get some good students, but plenty of very weak and/or poorly motivated ones as well. I certainly wouldn't say science and engineering students on the whole are well motivated. They do have to work hard, in my subject we say 40 hour a week is what is really needed, counting all the labwork etc, but few of them do as much as that.

The biggest problem really is this endless battle to try and get the schools etc to see that "ICT" qualifications are useless for us, we'd much rather they send us applicants with good Maths, and something that tests their language skills as well - in fact pretty muich what's in Gove's Baccalaureate. As an example, I teach algorithms, when you are talking about efficiency you have to mention logarithmic efficiency, and half the class don't know what a logarithm is! I think I learnt it in the first year or two of secondary school.

Also, what needs to be remembered is that all the incentives on universities in recent years have been to churn out research. I feel this plays a big part in "dumbing down", because academics are more or less told to put minimum effort
into teaching as teaching doesn't
improve the RAE rating, and the only thing that really counts is the RAE rating.

It doesn't help when the government says, as it sometimes does, "only give research funding to the top unis, let the other concentrate on teaching". The result is that those in the middle push even more madly to put all the emphasis on research so they get into this elite research group. Even those at the bottom see that as prestige==research, they should put as much effort as they can into raising their research profile.

For most academics in most universities, putting your efforts into teaching rather than research at best means you never get promoted, at worst means you get sacked.

Tim Holyoake said...

I agree with much of what is in the original post, but the bigger scandal of the current debate is the way in which it completely ignores nearly 40% of students by assuming that everyone who studies for a degree is aged 18-21 and does so full-time.

This post also falls foul of that assumption. For example, by asserting that only 50% of "students" voted at the last election you fail to define what you mean by a student. I'm assuming you mean 18-21 year olds in full-time education. I wonder what the statistics were for non-students aged 18-21?

I'm in my 40s and currently a part-time undergraduate student at the OU. The direct impact on me and 2,000 others of the £2.9bn cuts that have been made to direct HE teaching funding is that all of the social sciences masters run by the OU have been withdrawn. There is a good chance no social science masters courses will ever run again at the OU after May 2011.

Anonymous said...

The author replies

Thanks for your comments, and for sharing those experiences.

The points about mature students are entirely right, although I fear that the more that higher education is regarded as a right for all middle-class 18-year-olds (plus a selection of the 'worthy poor'), the less mature students get a look-in to the debate.

In my experience of teaching mature students in the humanities, most of them are more intellectually engaged (and more 'independently-minded, critical and informed') when they begin at university than the majority of 21-year-olds are who graduate. I'm pretty sure that the turnout rate would have been higher among mature students than 18-21 full-time students, but haven't seen any figures for this.

On maths, I wonder if the parallel in humanities is languages? I'd
much rather that my students had some practical reading knowledge of a foreign language than have ticked any particular examination box. This is of intellectual benefit to any humanities subject, even if students aren't examined in their language skills.

I agree entirely about research vs teaching. Stefan Collini made some interesting points about this in his review of the Browne Report in the TLS.

On Blackboard and other virtual learning environments: I just use them to put up resources. I do encourage students to email amongst themselves, but don't want to monitor this, so am not sure how much it is used.