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University Education should not be about filling buckets, it's about lighting a fire

Alister Scott writes about a serious disconnect with the general direction of university education policy and practice in England.

The title of this blog is adapted from a quote by W.B Yeats and exposes a serious disconnect with the general direction of university education policy and practice in England. Increasingly, there is a focus on satisfying the customer; namely the student. Whilst this appears entirely logical there is a significant shift in process and outcomes of degrees that is turning our universities into establishments that resemble a secondary school rather than a place of academic challenge and critical thinking; a place where student 'buckets' are filled.

Thus universities measure success in terms of amount of staff contact time student pass rates, student retention and student satisfaction. We are also required to take student registers for classes as 'truancy' becomes a major problem.

As a lecturer keen to ignite the fire of learning within my students, I make the assumption that because students have chosen to do a course they are interested in attending. However, as they are now paying customers this brings with it a whole set of new expectations in terms of the role of the staff, their workload and what represents good value for their student fees.

Thus tuition fees have created a culture where many students feel they have bought their right to a degree. This is a dangerous by-product of a flawed government policy. Alongside serious cuts in higher education, staff become seen as the principal vehicle to deliver the degree. If the student fails it is generally seen as the fault of staff by both student and increasingly university management.

A good indicator here is the amount of staff contact time. The inbuilt assumption for students and the public is that more staff contact equates with better value for money. However, more contact creates a dependency culture where the lecturer merely fills the 'bucket' of the student in a highly structured timetabled week rather than igniting the spark that leads to independent and critical study. Here further reading of academic and policy papers are then embedded in subsequent assessments.

If a student has over 20 hours of contact per week this minimises the time for self-discovery and prevents time for wider reading to support assessed activities. This fuels a cycle whereby assessments become less demanding given the restricted time a student has for independent work. This also creates a culture where modules are compared against each other in terms of workload meaning that some really innovative and useful assessments are discontinued.

University management and staff appraisal systems exacerbate this problem as student progression statistics are regularly used as dubious proxies for indicators of teaching quality. The system is therefore driving a reduction in quality as pre-set retention rates act as targets, set within the simplification of assessed activities. As a student progresses through the system the option of failing becomes less of an option.

On top of all this we have the National Student Satisfaction Survey which asks final year students to assess their satisfaction with courses. This creates huge institutional pressure to maximise response rates and positive assessments. Failing students rarely provide that.

I argue that the lecturer needs to be seen in a different role; as a personal trainer that one might use in a gym. People pay for the training but the practice and gains or losses are up to the client themselves. People are trained to become motivated to discover and be challenged.

We also need a stronger peer review system of teaching quality, putting back the 'academic' skills into degree programmes rather than relying solely on student assessments which increasingly favour those who deliver easy and simple to digest material; "filling the buckets".

I really fear that higher education is moving down a slippery slope where the fetish for the best ratings and indicators ensures that we merely fill these buckets for our students, holding their hands, rather than igniting the potential fire for their own research that surely burns within.

By doing the latter we prepare our students for the harsh realities of work which increasingly requires independent and critical thinkers and doers who will become the future leaders of tomorrow. 

 

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