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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


On Paying More and Getting Less

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Now although I regularly talk about my subject or teaching, I do not very often blog about policy at my university. I do not want to end up like Night Jack, the not-so-secret policeman blogger. But having already been made hot under the collar by the CBI's call for student tuition fees to be raised to £5000 and for the government's interest subsidy to be abolished, an experience at my university yesterday finally sent the steam hissing from my ears. I hope you can read this as anger bubbles out of this page. And you especially, student at the back of the class, should sit up and pay special attention, because this post is in your interests.

Yesterday, I was having my annual teaching induction in my department. One of the topics covered was marking - and returning - essays. That "returning" bit is important, because our university is pretty unique in that tutors have fifteen minute, one-on-one sessions with individual students, where we hand back the essay and talk through mistakes and positives with the student. It is the best moment of teaching we do all year, as it both allows tutors to get to know their students, and allows students to really understand how they can learn from their writing and mistakes.

But at the induction, it was let slip that the Dean of Arts has determined that the second of these two sessions is to be abolished. It is, apparently, too inefficient a use of staff time. There was no mention of what the students get out of it which is, if the annual feedback questionnaires are to be believed, a tremendous amount.

The second moment came later, as I sat with a literary theory module convenor. This particular module is content based: students have to learn and understand things, rather than simply being allowed to have opinions on texts. And literary theory being as obscure as it often is, students sometimes have problems with understanding its ideas. So I dared to suggest that, at the start of this year, I would stress to students that they must get in touch via email if there is anything they need additional help with. We could perhaps even arrange to meet one on one.

The phrase "parity of provision" came up in response. Since not all tutors will be so active, or too busy to respond to a plethora of emails, it is not fair of me to offer this to my students.

What makes me so angry is the failure to think of teaching time from the student point of view. Certainly, doing away with a handback session, or refusing to be on email call, will free up staff to do more research. This is the major aspect of universities that students do not often see. Yet what both the Dean and convenor seem to have forgotten is that students pay - yes, pay - to get taught.

This failure to think of the immense burden students are taking on, such that they not only have the need for education but the right to a good value one, is, it seems to me, a generational one. As a graduate of the class of 2003, I have £12 000 of debt at my back, and I am lucky - students leaving today can easily have twice that. Either way, with the inflation adjustment - correction, interest rate - on the loans, we could easily end up paying two or three times that over our lifetimes, something the CBI report seems to neglect in calling for a more commercial interest rate to be applied.

But the generation in charge of universities at the moment had an entirely free ride. At the well-paid level of lecturers and deans and vice-chancellors, the financial hardship students genuinely face both during their time at university, and long after it, must seem very distant. They simply cannot conceptualise the world that they have created, where from the student point of view, teaching is what they pay for at university, and is therefore its raison d'etre. Universities are certainly pulled in two directions - teaching and research - at once. But that is not the students' problem, when they find themselves at the fee-paying centre. What is their problem, though, is the sums; bear with me here - this matters.

At my university, students pay £3, 225 a year for tuition. In my department, they will have 21 hours of lectures times six modules (making 126 hours) plus 24 tutorials for those modules, plus (at the moment), 1.5 hours of essay handbacks across their 6 modules. That is 151.5 hours contact per year, which works out at around £21 per contact hour. That seems quite cheap, but remember that since each tutorial has 8 students, that means that the proportion of the tuition fee allocated to a tutorial contact hour is £168; for a lecture, which may have around 250 students, it is £5250. Of course, the university runs massive overheads to which tuition fees also contribute - such as a large library that students in English use extensively. But even so, in value terms, the university is getting a lot of money per tutorial or lecture, and given what little it pays me as tutor (I get paid £60 to do one hour's preparation plus hold the hour-long tutorial), there ought to be something of a surplus there.

Students today should be pretty upset, then, when tutors, or those in charge of university strategy, say that they should not expect any more contact with teachers. To my mind - the mind of someone who also paid for his education - students should feel very happy to make demands on lecturer's time, to ask questions about material they do not understand, or to have a lecturer go over their essay.

Instead, of course, the mythos surrounding the busy academic remains, making students terrified of approaching tutors. It is absolutely true that tutors or academic staff are extremely overworked because of the requirement to do research. But, to reiterate again, that ought not to be the student's problem. The problem instead lies with universities that will not provide sufficient staff to cover the needs of their - yes, that horrible but correct word - consumers.

It is striking to contrast the attitude of my university, which fails to see students in this light, with that of the Open University, at which I have recently started teaching as an Associate Lecturer (and about which I will blog more extensively later). As an organisation that charged its students from its inception in 1969, the OU has a different culture. For example, although I get paid a reasonable salary at the OU, if I find that I have a student who is making additional demands on my time - for example, they need me to telephone them once a week to help them towards their assignment - I can fill in a form and get paid for doing the extra hours. Clearly, the OU is different to a conventional university, and has fewer infrastructure overheads. Yet the OU sees supporting students as its primary role, understands that students have paid to be supported through their course, and make available the money to allow the tutor to do this. Further, by making that money available, this makes it clear to students that they can call on tutors, and to tutors that they should expect to be called on by students, since the workload of tutors can be expanded depending on the needs of students. This is not the attitude of my other university, despite the fact that students on the OU pay equivalent tuition fees to conventional university students. It is not surprising to find that the OU comes out at or near the top in student satisfaction surveys.

But if students at the OU are satisfied, one of the other problems at conventional universities is that students are not dissatisfied enough; or, rather, that they are not conscious of the gap between what they pay for, and what they actually get. If students are to become more determined in holding their universities to account, to get a fair return on their massive investment, they also need to be aware that they are investors in the first place (something quite evident to Open University students). At the moment, the application for a student loan is one more form a student will complete, along with choosing a halls of residence and ordering that new, branded hoodie. A prospective student - especially one from a privileged parental and educational background - will always aim to go to university, and the loan and tuition fees just seem like one more hoop to be jumped through to get there. Because of the nature of the loan, as one that silently accrues interest in the background but that will not bring the bailiffs knocking if not paid by a deadline, students rarely consider the effect it will have on them after university. Only realising the burden of the loan retrospectively, during their time as students they do not connect the education and contact hours they receive, with the fact that they are the ones who are paying for them. Lecturers, from the student point of view, may seem to be doing them a favour by teaching rather than researching, when in fact teaching is the core part of the "product" which students are buying.

My hope is that this will not last. When top-up fees come in, as is inevitable, or when commercial interest rates are charged on loans, as seems probable, students will really feel themselves consumers from the moment they step through that university door. And deans, or module convenors, will have to demand that more teaching staff are provided, to meet the needs of this new generation of students.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:43 pm

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