Monday, 23 June 2008

Uppity Students.

The BBC has an article on whether students are customers or learners. It uses words like ‘dangerously blurred’ to suggest that universities are lowering the standard of their degrees to attract students, especially lucrative overseas students. Apparently academics are under pressure to mark less harshly and, in particular, students with only a very basic grasp of English can successfully gain a degree. But, woe and behold, some of the leading academics ‘refuse to admit’ that such pressures exist! Apparently ‘there is an official wall of silence’ on this issue.

Well, I am afraid to say that I never got that memo, so here is my two cents. First, as a marker at both undergraduate and Masters level, I have never been asked to mark more leniently. Indeed, during my first year as a marker (when my work was second marked for my professional development), I was asked to lower a couple of grades, not raise them. One of the major obstacles to the claim that academics are under pressure to mark more leniently is that (at least at my university) a significant majority of marking is done by postgraduates on an hourly rate. In my department, all level one and two marking (except the final exam which can be split across pgs and academics) is done by postgrads. In the faculty graduate school, all of the core courses are first marked by postgrads and second marked by the course leader for consistency. Where marks are changed by the second marker (and they very rarely are), it is usually for consistency, rather than to raise grades per se. As postgrads, we have no investment in students getting good marks. (Unlike in the US perhaps) course evaluations are only for internal use and do not follow you in your career. You can’t use them to sell yourself on the job market. If anything, as most postgrads are also getting degrees from the institutions they mark in, they have an invested interest in keeping the standard of the degree high to ensure the reputation of their own degree. There are also internal and external controls to ensure quality of marking. Most departments are reviewed every 6 or so years to ensure quality of teaching and learning by a committee that includes people across the university, a student and an external examiner. Every year samples of all coursework (including all A grades) are reviewed by an external marker from a different university who can make damning decisions about the quality of your degree if necessary. If universities are lowering the standard of degrees, it must be a huge, cross institution conspiracy (and again I never got the memo- maybe it comes with a permanent academic post).

Another major flaw in this argument is that student’s fees make up such a huge amount of university funding. Maybe this is different for universities with top-up fees in England and for non-research universities, but at my university, student fees made up 16.6% of our funding, while research grants made up 67% of university funding. You can guess where the pressure lies for academics (and it’s not with the students). Indeed, when applying for jobs or promotions at universities in the UK (whether research or teaching orientated), you are always expected to give a list of your publications, rarely are you asked for a teaching profile or course outline. The pressure on academics within research institutes, or on the job market, is publish, publish, publish, followed very closely by research grant, research grant, research grant. The amount of time, effort or interest you show your students has almost no dividends other than your own personal satisfaction. We have no real interest in students as customers, because ultimately that isn’t where our bread is buttered.

The head of department has some interest in attracting overseas students as he has a university imposed quota to fill, and this may explain why some universities lie about their image, but ultimately, I would argue, this should ensure quality control over degrees. Nobody, especially people paying lots of money, wants to get a degree from a university that has a reputation for worthless degrees.

One concern that may be valid is whether students can graduate without perfect English. I actually think this may be possible. Now, if a student cannot communicate their ideas in English, they will never pass. But, it is perfectly possible to scrape by without perfect grammar or syntax. This element usually only makes up about 20-25% of a person’s grade, even in writing intensive courses like history, although, as it tends to influence the communication of ideas, it can often result in a much bigger grade deduction. Such a student would be unlikely to get a good mark, but they might pass. This might be more of a problem with ‘foreign’ students, but can exist in the work of ‘home’ students too. It raises an ongoing debate in subjects like history over whether we should be teaching ‘English’. As teachers of history, we usually try to drum in the structural element of essay writing skills (intro, middle, conclusion, etc) and how to reference properly, but, when it comes to grammar, we say ‘buy eats, shoots and leaves’. If it’s not our job to teach English (and honestly where would we cram it into an already full schedule), whose is it and is it really a necessary requisite of passing a degree?

One thing that I think has been an important change with the advent of the consumerist model, or the fetishization of education, is what the idea of the student has done to power relationships in the institution. The BBC article notes that students are ‘less deferential’ than in the past and complain more. To be honest, I think this is a good thing. While I think students should treat me with respect, as I do them, it is because we are all entitled to respect as human beings, not because I hold power over them (though I acknowledge that I do). In the past (even when I began university), there was frequently an attitude that students should pretty much put up with whatever they were dealt and this could result in massive abuses of power. Students were often short-changed on their education, because they weren’t a priority (they still aren’t but we have to disguise it better). They could wait months to receive feedback on coursework; their lecturers could miss class without giving them warning. They way they were talked to was dismissive and often rude. There was little sympathy towards students whose lives interfered in their work (as can happen to everyone) and no support for students who struggled- even if this was through bad teaching. This even manifested into silly things like students not being allowed to use lifts or only having one set of student toilets in a whole building. The consumerist model has tended towards a flattening of power hierarchies in the university and, while the staff/student relationship is far from equal, it is much improved. The article argues that a university has to be bigger than provider/ customer, but a learning community. Through forcing staff to recognise students as people, we are creating a new and better type of community.

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