The Future: Horse-Meat Lasagne Education

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So, my home department had its pants pulled down by the Daily Mail this weekend, which was obviously really nice. There are lots of things that made me really angry about the article (which I’m not going to link to) about contact hours; for example, the fact that the Mail ignored the main thrust and substance of the response they were given during the writing of the article, in favour of a couple of words about office hours that made us look like idiots, and the fact that the article was poorly researched and therefore presented an inaccurate picture of things. There’s also the annoying, misleading idea that fees only pay for contact time with academics. And then there’s the cherry on top of the cake: being lectured about the amount of time we give to our students by Anthony Seldon, master of an elitist public school (and I don’t mean elitist in the sense of selecting for ability), which charges fees for a single term that, give or take a few quid, are more than we are legally allowed to charge for a three terms. 

 

All those things are specific issues for another time and for people who will no doubt craft an official response. What concerns me is what this article and the responses we’re getting to it tell us about the future of university education in this country. Basically, the Daily Mail‘s main claim was that you could measure the value for money you get for your tuition fees by the number of contact hours you get. The Daily Mail is hardly at the forefront of original thinking here: they’re merely following the breadcrumb trail left by New Labour and the coalition government. As part of the new fees regime, universities have to make certain stats available. These are put on department’s websites and made available in forms that encourage comparison between institutions. It’s all part of the neoliberal agenda to embed competition in every conceivable place because competition will make things better. 

 

This is hugely problematic when it comes to something like contact hours because the raw number doesn’t tell you the things that you might and probably would want to know. A one- hour lecture with 300 students sat in a lecture theatre in front of 1 academic, for instance, is one contact hour; a one hour seminar with 12 students in conversation with an academic is also a contact hour. The distinction between the two experiences is hardly trivial. Putting aside questions about the pedagogic merits of either mode of teaching, students (and their parents, who play an increasingly important and vocal part in all this these days) would probably agree that they get more out of the latter experience, not least because they get to cultivate personal relationships with their tutors. In the small-group model, for instance, lecturers will get to know students’ names and about them personally. You can’t not do that when you spend 18 hours in a room with someone across 9 weeks. 

 

The problem is that while you can deliver a whole stack of contact hours through lecturing (for obvious economy of scale reasons), you can’t do the same with small-group teaching, which is incredibly intensive. Small-group teaching requires students to do a certain amount of preparation per seminar (a rough, back of a fag packet calculation is 4.5 hours reading per seminar hour) because it’s a dynamic, discussion based form of teaching and learning. Lecturing is just the transmission of data from one person to another, which is fine for a limited number of things but completely unsuitable for most things in the arts and humanities.

 

The problem, of course, is that all of this has been condensed into a single number: contact hours. The way that prospective students are being encouraged to see the number is as a measure of quality: the more hours an institution gives you, the better it is. You don’t have to think for very long about this to see the flaws but it has serious implications. The idea is that the market will force institutions with apparently low contact hours to up them because students won’t go there. So, it’s a race to up the number of contact hours. How do you do that? More lectures is the most likely root. Other options include skills sessions in the library. And we all know how much arts and humanities students like skills sessions in the library.

 

This is serious and frustrating for all kinds of reasons. One is the impossible circle academics are in when, one week, newspapers are citing them as authorities on the decline of education because students are apparently getting to university without the skills to do the things academics want them to do, then the next week academics’ professional judgement about what students need to become educated while they’re at university is being ridiculed. Another issue is the potential for obliterating a whole mode of teaching that is incredibly valuable. Yet another is that shifting to billions of lectures will eliminate the potential for students to develop the research skills that come out of the seminar model. Those skills are highly valued by employers, amongst others. If you emerge with a 2.i or 1st arts and humanities degree, it’s currently a strong statement not just about what you know but a particular skills set you’ve developed. And I just can’t wait to see a Daily Mail story in 10 years time about how graduates no longer have the skills employers want and it’s all the fault of universities for dumbing down. 

 

Anyway, my point: if this carries on, universities will simply stack up the lectures, cut out the seminars, and students will basically be sold what amounts to an educational horse meat lasagne. It will look a lot like the thing people got before, and people might think they’re enjoying the thing that people before them got, but it isn’t. Like the horse meat lasagne, the new university education will be produced in ways that people don’t want to know about. Also like the horse meat lasagne, it will be worse for the people lower down the social ladder because those at the top will have the capital to avoid the worst.  

 

I’m not claiming here that academics possess an expertise that can’t be evaluated, only that education is an unequal partnership and that important nuances are being ignored by a pretty crude set of measures (incidentally, I’m hearing that the people who matter are actually starting to realise they’ve made a mistake here). There are all kinds of ways that this could resolved. One, of course, would be allowing universities to charge Wellington College type fees so that they can provide an traditional university experience to an increasingly large number of students, but I somehow doubt many people would like that solution. Another and far easier way would be to allow students to compare what they’re being offered in an actual meaningful way and for people who should and do know better to make a much more energetic effort when it comes to informing students and their parents about what they might actually be getting for £9k a year.   

     

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