We have become used to universities taking a regular kicking for all kinds of supposed faults. You expect it from politicians and some areas of the media. Some universities even get it from their own former chancellors. However as higher education practitioners and supporters, we take it personally when it comes from a newspaper many of us felt to have the interests of education at heart. Readers of the Guardian and Observer have a relationship to those papers which is rooted in a sense of community with other educators. We have come to trust them to be knowledgeable and impartial on the subject of education. We don’t mind being challenged, but today, judging by the activity on Twitter, many of us feel betrayed.
Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and has form on denigrating UK universities. Other than her own university education some decades ago, she seems to have had no other direct involvement in higher education. Despite slender claims to expertise in the area, she was back again today to claim that “universities are not very good at innovation in terms of undergraduate education”, that they are excessively costly and over-funded, financially unaccountable, and cursing students with poor value for money. She greeted the expressions of annoyance and factual refutations on Twitter, not with contrition but with triumphalist provocation:
It was disappointing to see a number of HE supporters, including Wes Streeting and Stian Westlake falling in behind Sodha. Making a lukewarm stand for the beleaguered academics, was Phil Baty of the Times Higher:
I don’t know what Sodha imagines goes on in universities. Perhaps, she remembers gloomy lecture theatres with a balding don in high-water trousers mumbling at the front, occasionally jotting key facts on the chalk board. By contrast, post QAA and pre-TEF universities are all keen to introduce enhancements to student learning, and my recent experience was among educators fizzing with ideas for engaging students. University teachers are currently using a range of new techniques such as flipped classrooms, online and blended learning, practice-based learning, simulations, placements, employer-led research briefs, and staff-student research collaboration. It is Sodha who is trapped within a rigid notion of student as consumer, when in universities, we encourage the student to see themselves as producers of knowledge.
If teaching has not yet been fully transformed from 1990s patterns, it is less because university staff are resistant to change, but more because students are conventional in their learning preferences. When staff appraisals and university league tables hinge on the results of the NSS, we are forced to pay attention to feedback that expresses a preference for ‘a good set of notes’ over more challenging exercises in group work and problem-solving. University managers may well make noises about disrupting student expectations of learning and teaching, but will hold individual lecturers responsible for any drop in satisfaction scores. The accountability that Sodha extols incentivizes the conservatism she decries.
One thing that has been transformed is the funding landscape. Students who are in fear of accruing debt may well express this as resentment over ‘value for money’. After all, when surveyed, they are at the point when they have not yet translated their risk into what is now called ‘return on investment’, in other words, a paying job. But the HEA/HEPI report Sodha refers to clearly shows the point at which ‘value for money’ became a concern. It was, of course, with the cohort who started paying £9000 fees in 2012. What she doesn’t cite is the overall statistic on course satisfaction which is 85%. And if she had take a closer look at the statistics, she would perhaps have recognised that those ‘drivers’ of value for money judgements are actually very weakly correlated. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it is misleading to cite them as correlations at all.
It is not that I and other academics do not recognise changes that need to take place in universities. Many would prefer to prioritize staffing levels over another new vanity building project. These tend to feature cathedral-like atriums, empty of students and staff, while teaching is compressed into tiny rooms whose utilisation percentages are faithfully recorded by auditors for their annual ‘green’ league table. Indeed, when I was teaching, each and every one of my classes was interrupted by a utilisation surveyor taking attendance.
That is probably not the financial accountability Sodha was looking for in her article. She seems ignorant, though, of sources of information provided by HESA, Unistats, Hefce and all the rest. She indicated in an exchange with me that universities should offer line-item costings for each of their courses. It would be impossible for any university to disaggregate the cost of the university library, counselling service, sports facilities, marketing, equal opportunities, student support services etc., for each course, and I can’t see a benefit to students in doing so.
But if you want to get exercised about something legitimate Sonia, yes, many of us would endorse your concern with senior managers’ pay. There is very little accountability evident there, and as one tweep reminded me, ‘try getting hold of the minutes for the remuneration committee’. There are too many scandals over the biscuit budget, first class air travel and reckless spending on ceremonial furniture. Other economies would result from a reconsideration of the structure of the academic year. Too many universities have adopted semester models, while keeping in place the terms inherited from year-long courses. This is an inefficient anomaly and results in discontinuous patterns of study. Whether 2 year or 3 year degrees, undergraduates could continue their learning during the summers; there is plenty of scope for placements and internships that would allow students to apply their learning, or for study abroad opportunities. However, we need to recognise that this would not be a cost-neutral development and cannot be delivered with current staffing and resourcing levels.
This is not the first quarrel I have had with an HE wonk this week. An earlier interaction had the same hallmarks as the communications with Sodha. We see a rather one-dimensional view of university education, and a firm belief that their own experience is universal. Any rebuttal, however factual, is derided as the “howling of vested interests”. But the Observer should be concerned at the number of today’s readers who seem ready to abandon it for future Sundays. Perhaps they should behave more like universities and consider the needs and beliefs of their clientele. In 2017 we are seeing the consequences of a political class which does not understand the lived experience of many of the governed. I am wondering whether the higher education community has become similarly divided. Have the wonkers lost touch with those they wonk upon?