In Defence of ‘Lazy’ British Universities

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On Saturday, Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of the elite UK independent school Wellington College and newly appointed Vice Chancellor of Britain’s first independent university, the University of Buckingham, accused British Universities of laziness. ‘An ocean of complacency exists in the sector,’ he wrote in an article for The Times, complaining that the UK Higher Education system offers inadequate teaching, terrible student support, poor pastoral care and insufficient time and facilities for extra-curricular engagement. His article also included the baffling suggestion that this ‘complacency’ was borne of universities’ public-sector status. The performance of British universities is, he argued, ‘reminiscent of the nationalised industries before they were privatised in the 1980s.’ (Have you taken a train recently, Dr Seldon?) HE could learn a lot, he suggests, from private schools.

‘What is my experience of running universities?’ asked Seldon, rhetorically, before giving a succinct and telling answer: ‘Absolutely nothing.’

Although I have never run a university either, I have worked as an academic at British universities for the past seven years (and studied at them for five years before that), and I do not recognise the broken system that Dr Seldon describes.

The academics I have worked with care deeply about their students. They work hard to deliver engaging sessions and to offer guidance and support both in and outside of class. They have contact with their students through supervisions, emails, virtual learning environments and via personal tutoring systems – where each student is assigned an academic advisor who they can go to for pastoral care.

Despite consistent attacks from those outside the sector (including journalists, politicians and soon-to-be VC’s of private universities with an ideological bone to pick) about fairness, contact hours and narrowness of focus, students do not appear to be unhappy with the state of their higher education. Indeed, in 2014, a record 87% of undergraduate students reported that they were satisfied with the teaching on their degree programmes. Even the HEPI-HEA report that Dr Seldon cited to bolster his argument suggests that 77% of students are satisfied with their HE experience, and that 36% of those who were unsatisfied admit to not putting sufficient effort into their own learning.

There are questions to be asked about value-for-money, sure – but as the comments on Seldon’s article suggest, many people believe that since students are paying more for their education, they should receive an enhanced service. This standpoint fails to recognise that universities themselves aren’t receiving more money now – increased student fees were brought in to cover cuts in government subsidy.

It is ridiculous to suggest there is inadequate provision for the wellbeing of UK university students. The university sector takes student welfare incredibly seriously – with designated ‘student support’ Deans, senior administrative faculty overseeing that quality is maintained, and constant attempts to quantify satisfaction through institutional and national measures; including module and programme evaluation questionnaires and the National Student Survey. Almost all UK universities now require teaching staff to hold a PGCAP or a similar professional teaching qualification (unlike in private schools, Dr Seldon, where teachers are routinely employed without postgraduate teaching qualifications) – and the REF (despite its problems) ensures that academics must strive to produce rigorous, original, impactful research outputs, which in turn inform teaching. In the institutions I have worked at there are formal and informal lesson observations, peer-to-peer mentoring schemes, as well as in-house, university-wide training and development courses for staff and graduate students with teaching responsibilities.

And care for students doesn’t stop at teaching quality. Many British universities provide students in need with free or subsidized counselling, administered by qualified professionals, and dedicated disability services, which offer specialist support for students with diagnosed and suspected learning difficulties (significant numbers of students are not diagnosed until university level, as high-functioning dyslexic students are often missed within the school system). Although this structure of care differs significantly from the kinds of hands-on, personal support offered by teachers in loco-parentis at secondary school level, surely it is better that students with serious emotional and learning issues are supported by experienced specialists who can help them, than by academics who usually have no formal training in these areas – and who anyway are not primarily employed to give expert care tailored to each student’s complex needs? How much more ‘care’ might universities reasonably be expected to provide, when we consider they are first and foremost places of learning – not social, emotional and medical services?

As for extra-curricular opportunities, there are an array of societies, volunteering schemes and paid work experience placements on offer for students attending British universities. At the University of Leeds, for example, the volunteering programme enables students to search for placements that will allow them to practice and develop specific skills, which will enhance employability. And although Dr Seldon is correct when he points out that our system does not place the emphasis on sports that the US system does (and this is no bad thing, considering the corruption that dogs US college sports), there are excellent sporting provisions and world-class facilities in many UK universities. In most, there is an agreement with the student union that the university will not timetable sessions on Wednesday afternoons, which allows students to participate in national inter-university sporting competitions. In the 2012 Olympic Games, a number of students studying at British universities won medals. Bronze medalist Laura Unsworth claimed that the support offered to her at Loughborough as she undertook her Olympic training was a key factor in her sporting success. There is an active arts and theatre scene at many British Universities too – with the competitive annual National Student Drama Festival showcasing some of the most innovative work.

Of course, the transition to university can be – like any major life change – difficult. But universities have extensive welcome (or ‘freshers’) week programmes, with most also running specialist first year orientation modules and peer-support schemes to help students acclimatise to the university environment.

Dr Seldon misses the mark on many points, but, as an incoming VC, he ought to understand that universities are not schools. In many ways they are more like small towns – over 100 British universities have in excess of 10,000 students, and in several of the largest there are more than 30,000 students enrolled at any one time. The pastoral care model adopted by the school system would be completely unworkable in a university context. And there is nothing to suggest that privatising universities (because, let’s face it, that is what Seldon is getting at here) would do anything to improve students’ satisfaction, or, more importantly, their learning.

Of course, there are some universities where the infrastructure works better than it does at others. And of course we must continue to consult students, and to find ways to innovate in order to deliver an internationally competitive university education. There is much to improve, and there are ways in which best-practice might better be shared across institutions. But it does a disservice to the British Higher Education system (still widely regarded as one of the best in the world) to suggest there is widespread complacency. If anything, the complacency rests with those who insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that an expensive private university system will enhance the experience of UK students. We should be mindful that, in the US, there is increasing evidence that the private, and expensive state, university model – which creates huge, insurmountable debt for thousands of citizens – is forcing students into illegal and dangerous work, including drug dealing and prostitution, while administrators and senior university staff get rich. I can only hope that Dr Seldon’s position is motivated by ignorance, rather than greed.

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