January 29, 2014

Jenni Russell - 'Some universities teach and some do not'

Jenni Russell (@jennirsl) wrote in The Times:
"We must throw a spotlight on those institutions where students can get away with little work... [the] mass of words and numbers avoids the hidden truth about university courses; that a few offer a terrific, demanding education while many others are content to allow students to drift through — in a three-year haze. 
Occasionally that is obvious. Everyone expects medicine at Oxford to be more gruelling than event management at a new university. For a majority of courses, though, it is impossible to understand from descriptions just how much study is involved. Hundreds of thousands of students are miserably ill-served as a result. 
A tiny think-tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute, collaborated with Which? magazine last summer to research the student experience. In a survey that consulted almost 40,000 students over two years, it discovered that, on average, they work only three-quarters of the hours that ministers assumed they did. The number of hours per week that law students put in varied from 21 at some universities to 47 at others. Medicine, which one might assume was tough everywhere, varied from 32 to 50. Maths and computer courses required an average of 23 hours a week at the least demanding universities and 44 at the toughest."
Jenni Russell explained why there is no incentive for the conventional university model to change. On the university side:
"Some students are delighted to spend three years without heavy study duties. Others — at least a third — are hugely disappointed by their courses, but when they complain internally they are waved away because the universities know they have no leverage. What are they going to do; leave? A student isn’t the same as a restaurant customer; they tend to stick with the original choice they made."
On the government side:
"The Government has no reason to drive change either. Acknowledging that many universities and courses are weak would damage the reputation and earning power of the university sector, and would require the Government to do something effective in response. When the HEPI report came out, the Government promised action. Six months later nothing has happened. 
For the universities it’s even simpler. They aren’t rewarded for providing brilliant teaching. Their funding, prestige and their position in international tables depend on the quality of their research. Taking academics away from that in order to develop students’ intellects would be self-destructive."
Jenni then delivers the hammer blow. It's change or die.
"Unfortunately in the long term this policy of pretence is self-destructive for the rest of us. We are wasting the country’s resources by educating students badly. As a matter of urgency the Government should rethink its obsession with research, demanding that universities do their own workload surveys and publish the results. Easy courses would be identified and the pressure would be on. In a globalised, competitive world, hiding from the truth endangers our future."
In a blog post here I wrote that a Sunday Times poll found that in many universities are more interested in research than their students.

Jenni Russell in full here. My previous post on Jenni Russell here. Previous posts in The Cult of University series here, here university here, here, here, on the University Neurosis here, on The Legally Blonde complex here and also a piece here. Also on the Huffington Post here. My blog post on YouGov who found that employers have found graduates non-work-ready, here. My blog post here where a Sunday Times poll found that students are critical of university teaching standard and that universities are more interested in research than teaching students.
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