As university lecturers in the UK remain locked in a dispute with their employers over pay and working conditions in Higher Education, a survey published by private student loan company Future Finance this week revealed that less than half of students think their degree will help them get a graduate job to pay off their debts.
The issues are two sides of the same coin: the commodification of Higher Education. With home students now paying tuition fees of £9,000 per year, they rightly ask for value education in return. This involves among others high-quality teaching, well-stocked libraries, a wealth of electronic resources and specialist equipment, modern teaching and learning spaces, and decent student accommodation.
Alas, high tuition fees and the consumer culture they breed among students falsely suggests that the more you pay the more you will get in return. While this might work for cars, washing machines and smartphones, where you pay more to upgrade to a better model, it does not work for university courses. No matter how much you pay, you can’t buy an education.
The most successful student is not the passive consumer who has paid the highest fees to be spoon-fed pre-digested information from shiny packages labelled English or History, or Physics, but the active, independent learner who uses their university education as a basic set of skills to be employed in a variety of real-life situations and an inspiration for further inquiry.
Knowledge transfer is not a monetary transaction.
Non scholae sed vitae – we don’t learn for school, but for life – and that involves spending hours each week on our own in libraries, archives, labs and doing fieldwork. Student life is not about jumping through the hoops and passing the tests, it’s about learning something that will actually help you get on in life and secure that graduate job you desire, if only to pay off your debts.
Lecturers can help students to gain this independence by teaching them these all-important skills, but they cannot – and should not – do the thinking for their students. Learning is a two-way street, and knowledge transfer is not a monetary transaction.
Downtrodden university lecturers meanwhile struggle to meet the increasing demands put on them both by managements eager to maintain and increase student recruitment figures and the student consumer demanding all-singing, all-dancing lectures, the speedy marking of coursework complete with detailed feedback, and overall more contact time.
Lucky are the lecturers who still manage to do any research at all alongside their teaching duties and escape being downgraded to teaching-only contracts (as a punishment for putting rather too much effort into their teaching). With the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) hanging over the profession like the Sword of Damocles, pressure on teaching staff is bound to increase even further.
What happened to ‘research into teaching’?
‘Research-into-Teaching’ has always been held up as the great ideal. Students are to learn directly from the people who are cutting-edge researchers in their own field. But if research and teaching posts become increasingly separate from one another, and if some universities are driven by financial pressures to turn into mere teaching factories, what is to become of that ideal? And if an average lecturer’s working life does not leave any time for research, what are they going to teach their students?
To stop universities from becoming educational department stores that cheat their students out of thousands of pounds for nicely-packaged degree courses that lead nowhere, we have to go back to the basics and put the focus back on real learning. And we have to start valuing our lecturing staff again.