I’ve graduated from uni, but I fear for those who come after me
In July, I graduated from my university, bringing to an end the best 3 years of my life. I discovered so much about myself and fell in love with the subject I chose to study. I had fantastic experiences and met some truly inspirational people.
I also encountered a lot of things at university that troubled me.
The sector, through a combination of overarching societal attitude shifts, governmental policy, and in the case of my university, local power brokers’ mind sets, is facing profound challenges, challenges that look set to question the very nature of education. They are challenges that make me fear for those students that come after me.
Nothing illustrates this better than the campus move my university is mid-way through undertaking.
The move is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2018 intake of students, merging our two current campuses into one, right in the heart of the town centre (borrowing hundreds of millions to do so). Much of the proposals centre around moving lecture content online, with the lost contact hours seemingly being made up for with increased seminar hours. On paper this sounds excellent: replace crowded, boring lectures with engaging, interactive online material and then fill up the lost contact hours with more discussion-based, personal sessions. So too does being located in the heart of the town, as well as having brand new facilities.
Except there’s no real evidence that traditional lectures aren’t working for students, and plenty of evidence that students and staff are sceptical of replacing them with purely online material. A focus group of school children conducted by the university found that those spoken to were actually against online learning, despite several senior figures claiming the focus groups were a rationale for the transition, and the Developmental and Educational Psychology course that has recently had a module replaced with online material despised it.
Online content can work well if backed up by smaller group sessions that allow discussion and debate (the documentary ‘Ivory Tower’ shows how those institutes that ignore this information see a drastic decline in pass rates). The problem is that my university will actually end up with less teaching space at the new campus than they currently have, with no plans to hire more staff (it is claimed that we do not make good use of the space we currently have, but the amount we are downsizing by puts contact hours at serious risk). Some courses have hundreds of students packed into a lecture theatre: if you want to replace that time with manageable seminar groups you’re going to need a lot more staff and rooms in which to do it. Longer teaching days have been floated, but again this comes with its own host of problems (particularly for people with child commitments): who wants to have to wait 8 hours in between lectures? There is a genuine air of thinking up awkward solutions to problems that wouldn’t be there if we didn’t move.
And what of the staff? Hot-desking is to be introduced for all, academics included, in large, open plan offices. Not only does such an environment hamper academia and make staff less accessible to students (particularly for private meetings), but at no point did it occur to senior management to actually ask staff if they would be happy with such a transition. Lack of consultation and transparency characterises the student experience too: be it a smaller Students’ Union, no student parking on the new site and online lectures, at no point before things were decided were staff or students properly allowed a say in the matter.
Pseudo-consultation is now happening, at a point when building has begun and many decisions have been made. Because the foundations are already being laid, any of the remaining questions concerning the educational quality cannot be decided freely. Ominously the areas marked on plans for expansion are labelled ‘for future commercial expansion’ (which is probably how this will all be paid for: Starbucks instead of lecture theatres). Already they are constrained by the building designs that have been deemed most efficient, profitable (online lectures deliver the ‘product’ for a fraction of the price when you don’t need to pay staff as much or heat and light rooms on campus) or aesthetically pleasing.
When students or staff take matters into their own hands, reaction from senior management is swift. One survey by UCU members asking staff what they thought of the move was quashed by the university (not before a large majority of those surveyed said that they were strongly critical of the move), and another conducted through the Students’ Union by several students was met with fury from the marketing department (although fortunately there was little they could do about it). Senior members of staff have been known to approach students in public and try and convince them to stop asking awkward questions, claiming that the student in question would find it hard to be employed in the future because they would be seen as a ‘troublemaker’, that senior management didn’t like them (profanities were used) and that they could take away awards from the student if they wished.
Staff feel betrayed, beaten, and afraid to speak out. Some are afraid to talk in corridors or over university email addresses, whilst others claim they have been threatened with dismissal for talking to outside sources. Students know nothing of the move: in the last few weeks a scale model has been erected for public viewing and this probably ticks a ‘consultation’ box somewhere, but it is a pale shadow of the democracy academia should be employing. This is because we are not scholars: we are consumers and consumers need not trouble themselves with how things get done, just so long as we get the product in the end. Indeed, the ‘product’ is set to not be so great for the next couple of years, with the university being unwilling to invest money into the current campuses before the move, leaving the students studying there for the next few years drawing the short straw.
It is instead a bloated marketing department and other senior figures that are demanding: telling researchers not to publish when their research suggests the university has just paid for a poor online survey tool, putting pressure on Students’ Union elected officers to agree to the university’s plans and checking lecturer’s open day talks to see if they are ‘on message’. There appears to be a genuine hostility to the lecturers union (anyone querying the campus move is labelled as in cahoots with UCU as if they are some sort of terrorist organisation) and the Students’ Union, whilst having some amazing staff, has an extremely difficult line to walk, being almost entirely dependent on the university for its funding.
The move described above is but a symptom of a deeper problem, one which puts our educational future in real jeopardy.
It is what comes when universities are seen as businesses instead of democratic public institutions, when education is a packaged, profitable product instead of a public good and curriculum should be efficient and cost effective, even if the price to pay for that is a lower quality of learning. Marketisation has crept into academia (‘you won’t get many contact hours but come and enjoy some free sport and cheap drinks!’) and is slowly eroding it away, leaving nought but a hollow shell of an education, one designed to meet employers’ needs, not students’. The campus move is a financial decision, made by a business wishing to stay competitive, and as long as such a mentality is allowed to remain, democracy in HE will stay a pipedream.
There are, however, alternatives. Models such as those practiced by the Social Science Centre in Lincoln in which education is seen as a partnership between teacher and pupil, in which both has a responsibility but also a role in shaping its direction, could bring a powerful vision to mainstream higher education institutions.
Imagine student and teaching unions that have real power and say over the direction a university takes, senior managements that are transparent and accountable and a shift in focus to inspiring young people and encouraging their curiosity and creativity, as opposed to creating the next generation of worker drones and increasing profits for the business that HE has become.
Both students and academic staff alike need to fight to reclaim their campuses, before it’s too late. This move may not be happening at your university yet, but something similar might, before you know it.
Have you noticed a disturbing trend or policy at your school, college or university? Have you been trying to organise and fight for the future of education, either nationally or locally? Or have yo simply become aware of a national trend in education and wish to share your thoughts on it? We want to hear from you and help share your experiences with others going through similar situations.
Together we can form a network of similar individuals and pressure groups that work together to reclaim our education. Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to write something for the series and get the conversation going. We would especially welcome submissions from women and black and minority ethnic (BAME) people.