Saturday, May 30, 2009

Revolting students

Bristol University students have submitted a massive, documented complaint about poor teaching standards, reflected in national anger, unveiled in the Office for the Independent Adjudicator’s record rise in complaints from students. The charge is simple, they’re charging more for less. This has been followed up by a Facebook protest claiming that a recent exam bore little relation to what was taught on the course and was riddled with errors.

Higher Education needs to wisen up. The world has changed and the salad days are over. Across the land students are demanding a better education for the fees, Now that they’re paying personally, the lazy grove of academe is filling with paying customers demanding something in return for their debt. They’re paying customers – yes customers. And they’re paying large sums that will hang over them for years as debt. As we’re in recession, repayment has become more difficult as has the job market. All the assumptions about graduates earning power need to be revised.

Students are no longer compliant learners. This generation have been brought up being in control of the media they use (online) and can readily organise and complain. The digital genie is out of the bottle and analogue academics have been slow to respond.

My generation put up with the appalling standards of teaching and largely skipped lectures, knowing full well that it would make little difference in terms of achievement. Has much changed? I don’t think so. The Lifelong Learning Sector Skills Council (if you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry, few have) responsible for overseeing standards in Higher Education has, in a cowardly fashion, simply left HE to police itself in this matter – a big mistake. Go to any conference and listen to the appalling talks given by supposed expert academics and you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about here – unprofessionalism.


Ian Grove-Stephensen said...

If you want to see large-class education done right, try one of Anthony Robins' weekend firewalk events. He runs them like rock concerts, with *very* high production values - but then with 5,000 paying students in his class, he can afford to.

Given your previous comments about NLP, I appreciate it is unlikely that you will attend one, but I can attest from personal experience that a great deal of learning does take place. The huge-group, rock-concert format is a key element in ensuring that.

Jon said...

Good as ever Donald!

However, while I fully agree with your general sentiment, I feel discomfort when you talk about students as 'customers' and fear that it reinforces the dark side. The term has so much baggage and is way too common in our emerging systems: it suggests that education is a product, which thus promotes an attitude that learning is something you consume and, largely thanks to the heinous things done to our students at school, that leads to this kind of common conversation:

Student: This course is rubbish, you aren't teaching us anything

Teacher: But are you learning anything?

Student: Oh yeah, really a lot, but you're not /teaching/ us anything.

It is of course just as wrong to follow the traditional academic path and to blame students for teachers' deficiencies when they fail their assessments. Neither attitude makes any sense.

If there is a 'customer' in education, it is society as a whole. Students are much more akin to paying members of learning clubs. Sure, the organisations behind those clubs should be accountable and work to achieve what's best for their members. But such organisations gain value from what their members do together, not just what is done to them or for them. I think that makes their members different from customers. At least, it's a less dangerous metaphor.

Donald Clark said...

I'm not sure that avoiding the realities of everyday language such as 'customer' is wise. The raw truth is that students are now paying a lot to receive 'something'. Their expectation s have changed because they now compare what they've paid with the 'something' they've received.

The truth is, that poor lecturing, unrecorded lectures and rather sparse contact is still all too common in Universities. If I pay for text books I make a judgment as a customer. If I pay for accommodation in a University I make a judgment as a customer. I don't really see why I can't make that judgment for the quality and frequency of the teaching. It's all too easy to drift through academic life being unaccountable in terms of the quality of your teaching.

Jon said...

It is not that it is inaccurate in at least some senses to call them customers: the students do indeed pay for goods and services that universities provide. If we accept that argument, though, if you are a paid-up member of a charity or a political party then you are likewise a customer for the goods and services that they provide. That does begin to sound a little odd ('I am a customer of Greenpeace'?).

Apart from that, it's also hard to think of many other occasions where customers are also products. Education should lead to people who can think and act more reflectively, creatively, critically, ethically and responsibly. Teaching practices are harmful when they don't do that because they are failing what I reckon is the real customer, society at large (in its myriad manifestations). It still implies that we should be adopting more effective ways to learn and teach, but the focus is on the outcome for all the stakeholders, not just some.

Which, incidentally, is why we shouldn't be charging our students directly for their education, at least not as punitively as we do now. By educating them (when done right), we are doing everyone a favour, increasing the wealth and vitality of the nation, but making only the learners pay for it. Seems odd to me. The argument about extra earnings over a lifetime is specious because a) it fails to control for the fact that there is a selection process at most universities and smarter people tend to earn more and b) if they really do earn more then they will be taxed more anyway.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Jon
I'm not sure that I buy the parallel with charities and political parties. When I give to a charity it is an altrustic act and I don't expect anything in return. Similarly with a political party - that's an act of political faith, in which I don't expect weekly. tangible goods which benefit me personally.

I'm also wary of the idea of society as the customer. Sure, as you claim, the students may also be seen as the products, with society as the customers. But this is simply to extend my argument that it's a value chain of products, services and customers. Many markets can be seen this way. I could argue that plumbing services are a product and that society is the real beneficiary from improved sanitation and health, but that's stretching causality somewhat.

A closer parallel could be health. Here in the UK I pay for this service through taxes (though pay for prescriptions, dental care etc). I see it as a service and myself as a customer. Society is also clearly a beneficiary (albeit one step removed). The difference between education and health is that health is delivered by professionals trained in an appropriate discipline. Education in Universities is largely delivered by people with little professional training in teaching and often low levels of competence. Mark also the difference in the use of technology in both disciplines.

The problem with diluting accountability is that teaching doesn't improve. A typical learning institution has less that 25% occupancy in its buildings, low levels of student contact and scrappy use of technology. Few lectures will be recorded and the quality of teaching will not be subject to normalised 'performance' scrutiny. As for the agricultural calendar and poor methods of assessment...

Interesting debate Jon.

Jon said...

I'm enjoying the debate too! This is good knowledge building.

I think we are in pretty clear agreement about the need for a radical shake-up of systems and for more consistently good teaching in our universities. The question is whether it helps that process to see students as customers.

You're right that the charity example is not a great analogy, but it does show that there are things that we pay for, receive goods and services from, and can be members of where it is not so useful to think of ourselves as customers (and universities are of course charities!).

I also agree with you completely that it is a bad idea to dilute accountability, but I'd still argue that the case is utterly different from plumbing and mostly different from health, because the educational system /should/ rely on active engagement and participation from its 'customers'(health care also does that to a small extent).
As a teacher I facilitate and try to shape a process of collaboration and/or cooperation. My students are both subject and object in the system - 'customers' of knowledge production, perhaps, but also creators and purveyors of knowledge. By focusing on only one half of that duality we run the risk of devaluing the other half, which I reckon is crucial to changing our systems for the better. It is precisely the didactic, information transmission and regurgitation model that is the cancerous heart of many (by no means all) of our institutional approaches.

If we focus on the output for society (knowledgeable, reflective, creative, engaged students) then there is no conflict between the notion of student as active participant and that of student as passive recipient. If, on the other hand, we focus on the student as a customer then we risk creating an ethos of information consumption and passivity that reinforces and entrenches the worst tell-and-assess methods. This is especially damaging as the students have mostly learned from their secondary schooling that this is what education's all about and so that is what many of them tend to demand and value most. A further downside of that perspective is that a scarily large number of students who see themselves as customers are far more interested in buying accreditation than knowledge.

abla1 said...

Anthony Robins type events are ok for what they are - but like the metaphorical chinese meal, you are hungry again before long, i.e. I find that that kind of 'teaching' doesn't lead to knowledge that 'sticks'.

Too often a student that has learned little but passed a course will be happier than a student that has learned more but failed (perhaps that shouldn't happen but it does sometimes) - as the previous post suggests - the PASS in the box is more important to a 'customer' than the actual knowledge or expertise gained.