Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 73

Submission from Dr Janet Collett[249]

Report to the IUSS Select Committee of the House of Commons with reference to their Inquiry into:


1.  The scope and intent of this inquiry: may it promote thorough examination of the objectives of British education and how more effective provision is needed to deliver the fundamental educational needs in this precarious world of the 21st century!

  While the broadening of intake into HE has undoubtedly expanded opportunity, its rapidity and shortfall in funding has also undoubtedly compromised the capacities of HE institutions to provide the kinds of high quality professional workforce Britain needs when its greatest natural resource is its brainpower. Some of the consequences of the continuing failure to invest in this basic resource following the expansion of 25 years ago are taken up here as they relate to the questions posed in this inquiry,

But the important questions of this inquiry are difficult to answer with substantive quantitative information. Moreover, institutional loyalty and fear of comeback may further limit forthright response from badly stretched academic faculty. So this discursive submission is made in the hope that some quantitative assessment may come from the numbers submitting similar accounts.

I draw this account particularly from years of concern for the diminishing facilities of academic faculty as AUT President at Sussex, as a faculty-elected member of its Senate and Council, a committee member of the organisation Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, and now as a research colleague of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows at Harvard University. Although drawn in large part from experience as a faculty member through the period of HEI expansion in the '80s to the present, the experiences recounted here do reflect circumstances at many Universities in the UK (but, for the most part, excluding Scotland).

2.  Admissions: Preparedness of students to choose and to engage in degree courses in science

It should be no surprise that the declining numbers of students interested in University science degrees corresponds to the shortfall of qualified science teachers in schools throughout the UK. Yet contemporary world problems and their associated public policy demand more, not less, understanding and expertise in science. See the attached account, "The crisis in science … is a national crisis", numbered 2.1A, compiled from documentation supplied by Save British Science in 2003. SBS estimated then that even if every graduate in mathematics were to teach, there would still be unfilled teaching jobs. Since then, the numbers of qualified science teachers have dropped further.

These shortfalls have undoubtedly had enormous impact not only upon the choices of University courses, but upon the preparedness of students to take up quantitative and analytical approaches to thinking throughout their careers as undergraduates in all of the sciences. Moreover, this dangerous downward trend will only continue unless the government steps in (quickly) to find satisfactory solution.

  One solution might be to offer retrospective tuition and maintenance costs to well-qualified graduates (and post-graduates) who undertake science and mathematics teaching in state schools for a certain length of time, say five years.

3.  Admissions: Effective preparation for choosing and engaging in University curricula, —A-levels or other?

  Although well-taught A-level curricula and demanding examination standards do provide solid background for narrowly-defined University courses for students who are also committed to particular interests, A-level teaching does not now serve many well in offering either bases for choice or preparation for University work. Reasons for this include the following:

    (1) The breadth of A-level offering and uptake is too narrow to allow students to explore the opportunities available in University courses. The resulting poor choices must account for substantial numbers of University drop-outs as well as promoting mediocrity in place of real accomplishment for those staying the course in poor choices. This is a waste of both student talent and valuable faculty resources.

    (2) Looking for "good" A-level results as paper qualification rather than as educational accomplishment, students avoid subjects perceived to be difficult. Universities, in their turn, have greatly relaxed their A-level entry requirements in order to fill student quotas.

    (3) Many students struggle in their first two years in University to capture skills (writing, numeracy, etc.) they should have developed in school. Consequently, they waste precious time (and faculty effort) which should be used in establishing an effective knowledge base as crucial background for the critical thinking of their chosen field.

  Alternatives to the standard A-level curricula are badly needed. One good solution would be adoption of the International Baccalaureate (IB) as the standard entry qualification. Its breadth and depth provides both basic academic skills (writing, critical reading, basic science and numeracy) and important background in general education and thus a better basis for matching individual interests and talents to subjects and potential careers. Changeover to the IB as standard entry should also make British University courses more readily appealing to European students.

4.  Admissions: Adopting alternative admissions assessments.

  It seems likely that many students at present do not find satisfaction in their education in schools. The reasons include the serious shortfall of satisfactory teaching, as in the sciences, large class sizes dominated by loudmouths and foot-draggers, etc. Thus, discerning alternative admissions requirements might well find overlooked talent. But at present it seems that Universities fear losing out in assessment rankings of various league tables should they should dare to strike out in alternative admissions practices.

Thus Government could do a lot to inspire respectability for alternative, non-coventional routes into University courses. Essay-reviews of independently chosen reading, accounts of experience in the world of work, championing OU courses, among other possibilities, could be welcomed as respectable by the government and the press.

5.  Teaching Qualifications: Valuing ongoing research experience in teaching.

  There appears to be real danger that HE is regressing towards a reading of textbooks to absorb a body of knowledge while failing to understand the origins and qualities of that knowledge. Emerging from quality-assessment-ridden school curricula, many students now come to University expecting more fill-in-the-blank learning, without appreciating that a professional education is about learning to explore, to question and developing facility in critical appraisal and constructive resolution. These things are learned from engaging in research. Moreover, critical appraisal of current knowledge requires ongoing experience of contemporary methodologies and sources of knowledge. Less than that generates superficial understanding. How else can it be understood that all knowledge is not equal? And how else may the abuses of knowledge be as well understood as the uses of knowledge? It is these critical approaches to knowledge that constitute the essential elements of a first-class education.

6.  Degree Classification: UK Degree Classification less useful than transcript?

A lot of faculty and administrative time is spent in classifying degrees. Yet a great deal of information is lost about student accomplishment in the mean mark defining that represents three years of work in a classification. Transcripts, however, are less vulnerable to error in compilation, track performances through the whole student career and demonstrate special talent in particular areas when that is lost in the compiled degree classification.

Another practical consideration is that at present students do often choose options that they believe to be easier in the hope of a better degree classification. Transcripts could free their anxieties to allow them to explore and expand their horizons without serious compromise if they flounder. In a transcript this could even be seen as a virtue!

7.  University Degrees embody developing character and integrity: Plagiarism and Fraud, together with a lack of work ethic, have no place in Universities as the training ground for a civilized society.

  Integrity is a discipline that is often learned the hard way. It is also a foundation of civilised society. Its values and rules need to be a part of education at every step of the way. For Universities to fail to deal with issues of integrity is an abrogation of one of their many responsibilities.

But many factors militate against dealing with Plagiarism effectively at present.

    (1) Short-term, part-time and untenured faculty have neither time nor confidence to identify plagiarism, to take up the difficult issue with students and to engage in cumbersome University procedures which also often end in negligible punishment.

    (2) The frequent punishment of lowering a grade does not fit the crime.

    (3) Requiring submission of work in a form which allows quick identification of plagiarism requires expensive software and cumbersome on-screen reading. These are not always seen as teaching requisites.

    (4) Universities will do anything to keep students on their tuition-paying lists! Hence, throwing a student out for indisputable plagiarism is not, so it is quietly thought, in its best interests. But it is, because each case is a scary object lesson in learning a fundamental truth about the requirements of professional life.

    (5) In the widespread student concern to fill-in-the-blanks on their route to a qualification instead of engaging in their education, they are happy to resort to any short-cut to avoid the real work of investigative reporting in essay writing! Currently, student ethos generally has it that far less than a 40 hour work week is quite enough to get by in fulfilling the requirements for a degree.

    (6) Shortage of books on library shelves also encourages short-cut uses of quickly found web sources.

  In sum, again frightened of publicity, Universities will need formal directive from government to deal with plagiarism effectively.

8.  Students' engagement in their own education (as distinct from qualification)

  Many students, even in their third year, fail to grasp that University education is about exploring and questioning in developing facility as constructive critics in an area of expertise. Increasingly, however, a casual culture among students has brought unfortunate understanding that "getting by" is all that's needed to get their paper qualification. Factors contributing to this casual culture and a reluctance to engage responsibly in the challenges of being a student include:

    (1) The many students who work part-time and even full-time are part-time students enrolled in full-time courses. Feeling acutely conscious of the difficulties of financing their education, faculty tend on the quiet to accommodate by placing less demands on these students. This in turn releases all students, part-time or full-time, from their undertakings in order to avoid discrimination.

    (2) An unanticipated consequence of student tuition fees is that students feel that if they are paying for "customer service", then the choice is theirs to take it or leave it. As a survey of students I made last year indicated, most students spend considerably less than a 40 hour work week on academic work. I understand that this is widespread among Universities.

    (3) A fill-in-the-blank-to-do-the-required-minimum approach appears to be carried over from school where teachers whatever their own educational concerns must be preoccupied (in large classes) with the fill-in-the-blank character of quality assurance ratings?

    (4) Universities do not themselves convey to students essential elements of the pursuit of excellence and the rewards of challenge and accomplishment, nor do they extol the qualities of their faculty and what their faculty offer students on their way into life and careers, etc.

    (5) Moreover, to save salary expenditure, University teaching is increasingly carried out by hourly-paid post-graduate students and others. While some are undoubtedly good in providing defined teaching, they are not the faculty for whom tuition fees are paid and debts accrue. So how seriously should students take this teaching?

  Thus, underfunding of various aspects of both school and University education has a lot to do with this problem. But, as things stand, both the government and the press could help Universities re-establishing the concept of Universities as student inclusive academic communities that exist for the purposes of learning and supporting a knowledge-based society.

9.  The standing of UK HEI: "world class",—or not?

  I have often been asked while visiting US Colleges and Universities how higher education has changed since its expansion in the '80s. " Have enough resources been put into expanding faculty and facilities to maintain their strengths?" "Are their perceptions right that teaching sharp critical thinking and fostering independence are no longer the hallmarks of British University education?"

Thus, the word is out that while HEI expansion may have brought benefit to the social circumstances of the UK, the education on offer is not the education that used to be comparable to the upper tier of US Universities.

  These changes may be most evident in the large sizes of third year classes. Many are now too large for the interactive debate where the art of thinking together critically is learned. Since graduates with "firsts" also represent the brightest of graduates, it is difficult to assess how these changes have directly affected the quality of their education. This is only likely to be evident in how they fare in post-graduate programmes and in their jobs following graduation.

  But serious slippage of standards is undoubtedly evident in the lower degree classes. —Who would want to rubbish three years and a lot of money?

  However, it should also be noted that Britain is still appealing for short periods of undergraduate exchange and for courses in specialist UK institutions, but not generally (save the "top ten") for a hardcore academic experience. More concerning perhaps is that UK first degrees and post-graduate degrees from all HEI in science, at least, are no longer taken to be qualification for post-graduate and post-doctoral work in the top tier of US Universities.

10.  Institutional and National Factors limiting the capacities of UK HEIs and their graduates to meet expectations of "World Class" status

  1.  Two recent changes in University Governance, in particular, have driven the overriding concerns of institutions from academic aspiration to financial accounting. The first is that the structures and processes which formerly allowed academics and administrators to argue out their cases to find mutual accommodation of priorities in finance and academic needs have largely been replaced or dominated by non-academic administrators. The consequences of this cannot be underestimated:

Academic faculty have effectively lost their Statutory authorities in defining the character of the academic affairs of academic institutions. Yet, as a former Dean of the Faculty of Harvard remarked to me in discussing the plight of British Universities, "Academic innovation almost always comes from the bottom up, and good administrators know that their job is to respond to faculty grassroots interests."

  Core academic needs and interests are too often assigned priorities below expensive administrative and building restructuring without establishing their academic rationale—for enormous expenditure.

  The second major change in University governance is in the composition and structure of oversight by the governing bodies, the University Councils. As at Sussex, many are now small groups of accomplished worthy people who cannot spend the time needed to do their homework for the University adequately. Nor are they allowed long enough tenure as members of Councils to develop an overview of their roles and importance in a University. The result is that they largely function at the beck and call of administrators as laid out in their paperwork. Thus, they are no longer able to function as knowledgeable watchdogs concerned about and available to all members of the University community. Tragically, they are no longer the greatly respected local citizens who can more easily respond to whistleblowers and drop in to interview senior administrators about the fine details of accounting or the rationales of policy.

  2.  Nor do Vice Chancellors apparently any longer see themselves as academic leaders with a mission to promote quality in education because it very greatly affects the social well-being of individuals, their communities and Britain's economic well-being. They do not see their jobs as being public spokespeople for education, but instead have allowed themselves to engage in the bravado of competitive sports in climbing the rungs of league listings. As a result they resort to whipping their faculties into, they hope, better "performance" when they should have concentrated on understanding what support is needed for their work and extolling their accomplishments. How many Vice Chancellors (appointed by non-academic University Councils) now in fact have no experience of the complexities of academic communities and do not know from personal experience what elements make for the effective creativity communities which Universities should be? These appointments are of CEOs and not first among equals undertaking missions to sustain creative academic communities.

  3.  Examination of the consequences of debt in limiting student aspirations beyond graduation to pursue academic interests and to use their education in jobs of real interest, including not well-paid public service jobs, teaching and research is badly needed. The current economic and environmental quagmire demands sharp-minded well-educated professionals to find solution, urgently, but probably many feel unable to participate while dragging the baggage of student debt. This is another serious factor in the (unintended) consequences of broadening HE intake without adequate funding. There may now be fewer, not more, well-educated graduates who feel able to participate in Britain as professionals.

  In sum, the government, and the press, now need to help Vice Chancellors to grasp their responsibilities, first, in speaking for the central importance of high quality education in sustaining Britain as a knowledge-based civilised society and, second, in ensuring that their own institutions are governed in ways which reflect the best of civilised society. Finance would then follow more easily in the recognition of the truth of the famous statement of a former President of Harvard: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

  I very greatly hope that the IUSS Select Committee will continue to Inquire into the state of health of Universities and into the causes of ill-health, and that the committee will also find many in government sufficiently concerned about the state of ill-health that investment in Britain will be increased to that of nations with "world-class" status.

December 2008

249   Lecturer Emeritus, University Research Associate of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, University of Harvard. Back

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