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More bang for your buck

May 14, 2011

David Willetts says that students are ‘frustrated’ by the amount of tuition they receive in British universities adding his voice a growing refrain that insists universities should provide more staff-student ‘contact hours’.

Given that the pursuit of a three year degree will leave students in the red to the tune of £52000 (by some estimates) it is to be expected that students will want more bang for their buck.

But forgive me for pissing all over the Tories’ plans to turn higher education into a consumer nirvana but Willett’s demand that students get more lectures would be laughable, except that by now we know there is fuck all that’s funny about the Tories.

I’m tempted to point out that university budgets have been slashed and as a consequence there isn’t the staff to meet a demand for more of anything much, never mind lectures. But that’ll cut no ice with the Tories, who’ll argue that the courses that can attract students will have the money to employ the human resources to teach them. Except, of course, that you won’t know how many staff you need until you know how well you’ve recruited. And given that enrolment ebbs and flows, this is a recipe for the casualisation of lecturing staff. How will those heavily indebted customers feel about being taught by an army of mercenary tutors, here one semester and gone the next?

Perhaps Willetts sees the solution lying in the redistribution of work. A lecturer’s work revolves around three spheres – teaching, research and administration. Since it is hard to image course administration being slashed, I suspect that what is being proposed is that lecturers do less research, or none at all. But if I was a student paying £9ooo a year I’d want to be taught be someone with expertise in my field of study. And genuine expertise comes from being research active.

But even if there were no cuts and staffing levels and work loads weren’t a problem, there is the issue of poor student attendance at the lectures and seminars already offered.

Students wearing their consumer’s head may say they want more – after all what consumer doesn’t thrill to see 2 for the price of 1 or 50% extra – but as many consumers who take up such offers discover, sometimes you don’t have the appetite for the extra portion and it lies rotting in the bottom of the fridge.

From my experience as a lecturer and course director, getting some students to attend the classes already time-tabled is a struggle. For instance, in a class of 8o students, if I can get half of them to attend the weekly lecture, I consider that a success. As for seminars, I find that attendance is even worse, perhaps because students are expected to contribute, and there is no surer way to kill attendance than to insist on student participation.

But it would be a mistake to see laziness as the main reason that students skip classes. The introduction of fees has seen a rise in the number of students who now have to work part-time hours to keep themselves in university. As a consequence there are times of the week when students just can’t attend classes because of the demands of employers or because they’re just too bloody tired.

Like so much of the government’s thinking on higher education, Willetts’ latest contribution to the debate makes no sense, driven by an idiot-belief that in all instances you can have more for less.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    May 14, 2011 11:39 am

    I suspect you’ll have seen Howard Hotson’s (president of the International Society for Intellectual History, no less) rather elegant skewering of Tory Higher Education policy. Along the way he makes the points that what a free market seems to have responded to in the States is not, actually, a demand for better teaching or even necessarily better research but a ‘better student experience’.

    “…the marketisation of the higher education sector stimulates not one but two separate developments which run directly counter to government expectations. On the one hand, genuine market competition between elite universities drives up average tuition fees across the sector. On the other, the marketing of the ‘student experience’ places an ever increasing portion of university budgets in the hands of student ‘customers’. The first of these mechanisms drives up price, while the second drives down academic value for money, since the inflated fees are squandered on luxuries. To judge from the American experience, comfortable accommodation, a rich programme of social events and state of the art athletic facilities are what most 18-year-olds want when they choose their ‘student experience’; and when student choice becomes the engine for driving up standards, these are the standards that are going to be driven up.”

    Oh, and he argues it makes for grade inflation as well – I mean, why pay all the money for a mediocre degree?

  2. Rab permalink*
    May 14, 2011 6:25 pm

    Hi Charlie,
    Yes. The ‘student experience’. I keep hearing this and it doesn’t have anything to do with education from what I can tell.

    I think it’s interesting that Hotson advises Willetts to do what Lansley has done with health, and think again.

    They’ve made a bollocks of it, probably even by their own standards and ambitions.

    …and I’d say grade inflation is very real and has been with us for sometime. How much worse will that get once the hike in fees kicks in?

  3. Chris Alford permalink
    May 14, 2011 10:59 pm

    Hello Rab glad you metioned what Lansley is doing to the ‘NHS’.
    check out these two links. Both serious and funny at the same
    time. I work for the ‘NHS’ as a ‘Healthcare Assistant’ so I hope
    you’ll do a blog about the ‘NHS’.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/24/andrew-lansley-rap-anthem-nhs

    P.S. Like the Rap Video I too think lansley is a tosser!
    I’m also glad you’re a lecturer who is not scared to
    swear when the emotive occasions demand so!
    Keep up the blogs.

  4. Rab permalink*
    May 15, 2011 8:27 am

    Hi Chris,
    I love the Lansley Rap.

    I’ve got to confess that my language deteriorates with ever vicious, ill-thought through piece of Tory legislation.

    Here’s something that might interest you with regards the NHS

    http://www.spinwatch.org/blogs-mainmenu-29/310-tamasin-cave/5435-the-nhs-will-be-shown-no-mercyq-says-cameron-health-adviser

  5. May 15, 2011 6:51 pm

    It’s not just the Tories who fail to understand higher education. I saw Dolores Kelly MLA trotting out the old chestnut of two year degrees taught over the summer, on TV a few months ago. I think we should offer MLAs the chance to shadow us for a week just so that they could really see what we do!

  6. Rab permalink*
    May 16, 2011 6:23 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    Like me, you probably find yourself performing a range of duties(many above and beyond the call of all reason…) – lecturer, researcher, administrative assistant, foster parent, social worker, retail sales assistant…

    If there was every a good old days of the History Man or Lucky Jim stamp, I’ve never known them.

  7. Chris Alford permalink
    May 23, 2011 9:36 am

    Hello Rab the spinwatch.org link was very insightful. British politicians can match the U.S. in terms of corruption and conflict of interest! After reading that link I did my own protest blog on youtube to ask people to sign a 38 degrees Save the NHS petition but I used Humor to make a serious point. I’ll think you like it as it is relevant, important and related to the comment of both yours and mine. Here it is: in HD! Open full screen to see text better! (not bad for ‘unskilled’ worker)

  8. Rab permalink*
    May 23, 2011 4:18 pm

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for this. The statistics about how many people don’t know how to get involved in the ‘listen exercise’ speak for themselves. 95%. Shocking. I’m on the 38 Degrees mailing list, so signed the petition signed.

    The analogy of the Tories as a party of Daleks is so good.

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