Should universities teach better?
In the 1980s, my clever friends who had gone into the Civil Service used to complain about the press they got. There they were, young people working 15 hours a day, trying to improve the conditions in prisons (or whatever); and there was Thatcher saying they were a load of expensive lay-abouts, and that they were a waste of space. My friends always said that, however much they had good arguments against that, the Thatcher rhetoric still got you down. It made you want to change your job.
Well, it isn't all that different in UK Universities right now.Mr Willetts is telling us that we should all teach better. As if we were all letting down our students with poor teaching. We are, in other words, doing badly. Or so the coalition says. Really?
Universities are always a tricky area when it comes to teaching, Parents often complain that their kids are only getting (say) 4 face to face contact hours a week ("all those thousands we pay and . . . ."), but they don't quite see that the point is to encourage the students to learn by themselves (with expert support).
In this case Willetts is telling us all off. And telling us that we could do better, cheaper.
OK, I am sure I could do some bits of teaching better. Who could claim that all their classes have been alpha plus? But, on the other hand, I think the range of my own teaching hits the spot. I really do take a lot of time in getting (so far as I can) my lectures to combine an approachable style with some definite new views. And when I am teaching small groups, from one to four, I am concerned to use that opportunity to make a real teaching impact. I mean to change students minds.
The truth is that there is no teaching experience so good (and scary) as when you have someone going over your own written work, one to one, and speaking frankly. I am always grateful when one of my colleagues reads something I have written and tells me straight what they think of it and why. It is all the more useful for the students. Just imagine being 18 and having some grey beard like me going over what you have written ("the second sentence really doesn't seem to tally with the first", "is there any evidence for what you say in para 4?") And on Monday I shall see the up-coming third years in Newnham, also one on one, to talk about the worl they will be doing over the vac, and how they ae planning for their 10,000 word disserations next year --and so on.
This is an experience that we offer to the students we teach. It is eye opening and driven by our research. It is also expensive. And there is no way that it is replicated (on the Willetts model) by a few people at an FE college training some locals for an external degree. That would be to assume a 'what' not a 'how' model of education -- training not education (in my terms).
So, how do we deal with Oxbridge? Pat us on the back, but just take our money away --so we will all move to a style of teaching that does not put me in the same room as one, two, three or four of my first years. And does commit ourselves to the kind of teaching that really does make our very best students even better? Yet should we really widen the gap between old and new universities (I wonder how many kids at most "new" universities will ever get our style 'one to one'?
There are more problems here than the touchy-feely coalition would let on.
Any way, we wait for Lord Browne's report, with some cynicism. Wasnt' he the guy who presided over the BP regime that led to the current debacle? Was he the person to work out how to hone Higher Education's finanances for the benefit of the nation?
I dont think so.