What's right with UK universities
The proposed reforms of the university system, and the opening up of the right to award degrees to a whole new range of private universities, is about to be given the once over in the House of Lords. But in the run up to that, it has become something of an open season for prejudices about higher education –informed and ill-informed – to be on display all over the media (and, to be fair, some learned support). One particular (and particularly silly) article in the Times, a leader, caught my eye (subscription only, I'm afraid).
My hackles were roused at first because it appeared to equate excellence in UK universities entirely with fields ranging from biochemical research in cancer to neutrinos in physics (so what about history, politics or classics I asked….?). But it went on to suggest that we, in higher ed., had so reneged on our mission to educate our undergraduates that people like me simply passed on our teaching to graduate students. In other words, the poor sods paying £9000 were getting a very bad deal (while I put my feet up).
OK, let me confess that I am on research leave at the moment (though I have been replaced by a younger scholar well past her PhD), and let me confess also that for that last 30 years my experience has been mainly Cambridge, with some intervals teaching in Paris and the USA. But from what I know, to suggest that there is a new fashion for illegitimate ‘palming off’ of teaching to under-qualified doctoral students is barking mad.
For a start, in Cambridge, doctoral students have been teaching undergraduates in small groups/one-to-one (in supervisions) for all my career there. One of my best teachers ever was the then graduate student (now retired professor of philosophy) who introduced me to the hard edge of Greek philosophy in 1973 (I wasn’t as good a pupil as she was a teacher, I fear). And I think I didn’t do too bad a job in teaching ancient history myself in 1978-9. Doctoral students taking a hand in teaching isn’t a new phenomenon.
And it isn’t a UK phenomenon either. Anyone who goes as an undergraduate to Harvard or most of the famous US universities (liberal arts colleges are different) will find that, while they listen to big lectures by the high profile profs, all their written work will be graded and discussed by the grad students. I have always reckoned, and still do, that we in the UK interact directly with our students more than almost anywhere else in the world.
There is, of course, a professional development aspect here. PhD students are mostly on a career track to an academic job and they need to begin to get experience of teaching and would rightly scream very hard if they were denied the opportunity. Just as those about to enter school teaching have to get experience on pupils before they have actually qualified, so do university teachers (else, cue for the other scream about how we are all hopelessly untrained and think expertise at writing books is good enough for pedagogy too).
That doesn’t mean, contrary to the wilder media reports, that hopeless beginners are let loose entirely unsupervised on the poor young “consumers”. There are compulsory training courses, lashings of advice from people like me about what to teach and how to go about it (like… how you get the quiet student to open her or his mouth when the small group has been dominated by a couple of loud mouths). And students are active participants in the process too, not merely passive recipients of drilling. They can make it clear what they want or don’t (sometimes they are wrong, sometimes right). In Cambridge, at least, the best supervisions are when both sides are giving their all to it. And I imagine that is the same everywhere
Inevitably some teaching is better than other teaching. As with most things, it is possible to ensure a degree of competence, not to legislate for brilliance. Some of those doctoral students, closer in age and experience to those they are teaching, will be more inspirational than I am; some of them will be less so.
But what, you ask, do you do about a student teacher who is really hopeless. Let’s take an imaginary case. Suppose there is someone who thinks they would really like to put themselves forward to teach first year undergraduates Greek language, yet I suspect that their own language is not strong enough for that (there is a huge difference between a good passive knowledge and an active teaching capacity). What do I do? I tell them it straight of course. And I explain that I have a duty to all sides in arranging teaching: to the graduate student who wants to get and experience, and to the students who want to learn. I have to be able to look both sides in the eye.