Monday, 11 April 2011

Customer Service!

During all the hoo-ha surrounding the fees proposed for UK universities, there has been distressingly little comment on the perception of what universities are for. In my view - can I be alone? - universities should exist to advance knowledge and understanding through research and through dialogue between researchers. At our best universities (now called "research-intensive"), this process is still, one would hope, at the heart of their hopes and endeavours. Of course, the undergraduate population is important to them. Otherwise whence would come the researchers of the future? But the undergraduate population is a mixed bunch, bringing a range of personal motivations to their undergraduate career which can include:

  • a desire to learn and understand a subject in depth

  • a need for a reflective period between adolescence and adulthood where new friendships and new experiences broaden their outlook

  • a need for a degree for their chosen career (medicine, engineering, geology)

  • a desire for a degree in almost any subject, because the degree has become a gateway to almost any job above shelf-stacker or burger-flipper (though a degree might even help here!)

  • everyone else is doing it

  • not knowing what they want to do in life, and the university experience both delays the decision and helps the decision

  • if they don't have a degree, they are a failure

In the past, only about 8% of UK school-leavers went on to higher education. It was challenging to get a place at a university (and back then, the universities were all "proper" universities), but if you could demonstrate the intellectual potential and the sufficient motivation to see a degree though to the end, you did get a place - and you had your fees paid, along with a (just) liveable maintenance grant. You felt privileged, even though you had shown you were worthy of the privilege.

You were indeed privileged, and valued the chance to have contact with and be taught by some of the finest workers in your field. These workers - lecturers and professors - were principally researchers. Some of them were brilliant teachers, some were abysmal, most were adequately average at teaching. If you happened to have a lecturer who was rubbish, you went and "filled in the gaps" for yourself, or you stopped behind after the lecture to talk to them until you did understand what they had been saying. You took the rough with the smooth.

You also fully accepted that you were responsible - and you alone - for your performance. You could muddle through and get a third. You could apply yourself and get a respectable lower second. You could work very hard and get an upper second. You had to be exceptional to get a first. Exceptional.

This has now changed. Grade inflation means that anything less than an upper second is deemed hopeless. Merely "good" students are getting firsts. A first is the customer (student) expectation, involving simply token effort on their part. "Failure" to get your expected first can therefore only be the fault of the university, if you have applied yourself. Bad teaching, inadequate tutorials, lack of "pastoral care". The list is potentially endless.

Following the fees increase to (let's face it) £9,000 per year, the demands for undeserved firsts can only increase, and universities will have their valuable time and resources eaten up with specious complaints and appeals from disgruntled students who, years ago, would have been delighted to enter the job market with three good A-levels, which had cost them nothing and were obtained three years earlier in life.

No comments:

Post a Comment