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Sign on the Dotted Line

July 26, 2017 1 comment

Something I mentioned when fees were muted last century is about to come to pass.

Universities Minister Jo Johnson has announced that students are to get ‘value-for-money contracts with universities’. With this the consumerization of HE has reached a zenith. Students will be allowed to challenge universities over too few teaching hours or inadequate facilities.

This may sound like a righteous solution to students having to pay fees. After all, if you are paying for something, you need a ‘right of refund’ in the event of the goods not being of acceptable standard.

The one fly in the ointment here is that how do students know what is an ‘acceptable standard’? Of course you say, they will use the university ranking guides published in newspapers. However, these are often very sketchy on the fine details of particular courses, which naturally vary according to the type of degree being undertaken.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the coming year. My university has re-jigged classes to give them extra hours, which of course requires that they are rewritten to allow for that. However, this has not been supported with joined up thinking for two reasons.

1) Students are not aware that this will mean they have less time to undertake paid work to pay for their fees/living expenses. Increased hours will inevitably spill over into days when they previously expected not to have classes and were available for work.

2) Classes have not had the extra hours spread about the timetable to prevent boredom in class. Instead they have just been given an increased solid block of time. This means instead of two hours straight teaching time, they now have three or more! Previous problems with non-attendance will pale into insignificance in future as the amount of class-time missed increases significantly.

This will of course be realised too late to deal with the problem for the coming academic year and we will have to muddle through.

At the end of the day, value-for-money can only exist if staff are also part of the equation. Things like having your workload split evenly between teaching and non-teaching might help. I for one am tasked with spending most of my time on things other than teaching. I sometimes feel it is a travesty to call myself a lecturer when I am a glorified administrator for most of week. You would think that with the increased contact hours for what teaching I have, this would even things out. However, you would be wrong.

Other benefits would be to have an office, this fad of ‘hot-desking’ or shared offices might be on trend, but it does not suit the need to spend time on teaching matters.

Time will tell if students become litigious, but it will also prove the point.

Top of the Class

Some universities are apparently giving more and more firsts to their students “with some universities giving first-class degrees to more than a third of their students.

This of course assumes that students are worthy of a first.

In my experience there has not been a sudden upward trend in the abilities of students. In fact I believe it plateaued a few years back and has since gone down.

Of course, I can only speak for my own department/discipline. However, we all have to spread ourselves about as external examiners these days. So, I have been able to view the board outcomes for a wide variety of universities. In general it is the Russell Group that seems keen to promote students to a first class degree when there is little evidence of first class work to support or warrant it.

In my area, students are not becoming more intelligent, quite the opposite. Over the years students have become resistant to learning, expecting the rote learning from school to spill over into their university careers. The amount of students who come to me asking to be able to resit a lower mark than they wanted has trebled.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, there is no mechanism to allow these students, who have not attended, nor done the reading, to ‘have another go’. In our increasingly commercialized HE sector, students are seeing a degree the same way they see their shop purchases. If they do not like what they have ‘bought’ they expect to be able to return it for a ‘replacement’.

You cannot blame them for this; it is we after all, who have encouraged them to think of a degree as a ‘purchase’.

Should there be comprehensive universities?

An article caught my attention around the comprehensivisation of universities.

Are universities perpetuating social class? In the UK there are distinct groups of universities, with Oxbridge at the top, the Russell Group next and the Post-1992 group.

In a lot of ways, these are representative of classes in the main. The best schools have their pupils go to Oxbridge, the middle classes go to the Russell Group and the rest hit the old polytechnic sector.

What the author of the article does not seem to do is give clarity on how that system could be turned into a comprehensive one. Yes, it would be good if students all received the same experience at university, but that would assume that all universities are created equal, with equal resources and equally good staff. It also depends on class sizes, ability of students, etc.

Would it be possible to balance out these aspects across such a vast sector of 450,000 plus students?

The problem with this way of thinking is that you are suggesting a national curriculum for universities. That would essentially turn, what is a difficult balance of research, knowledge and delivery skill into a rote process anyone could do.

A less generous person might suggest that this is what they may be after – reducing the skill means reducing what you need to pay staff.

If anything, perhaps we should be revising all universities upwards to meet the highest standards. However, that would mean more resources, smaller classes and better initial schooling. All of which would cost vast sums to achieve.

Harrumph.

Categories: education, jobs, students, work

Expect The Worst/Best/Whatever.

An interesting article today on university expectations for first-timers.

It is quite correct to say that new students believe they will be getting more teaching hours than at school. I cannot count the number of times I have been told – by students – that they do not get enough hours in class. Every time I have to explain that at university students are expected to take charge of their learning as part of of, um, the learning process.

This suggestion usually causes consternation to appear on their faces as they try to reconcile the fact they are paying for having just a few hours of contact time. Usually the complete the interaction cycle by saying, ‘well, we need more hours’.

Well, this coming year they will be getting more hours, at least at my university. The powers that be have wanted to head off complaints, possibly so they can increase fees later in the year. It will be interesting to come back to this topic this time next year to see if indeed expectations have improved.

Nevertheless, more contact hours for students will have an impact, and not in the way they envisaged. As students will be gaining extra hours on their timetables, they will need to be accommodated for longer on campus. Given that most students now have jobs with long hours, they will have to give up some of those paying hours to be sat in a classroom. This will cause problems, particularly for those with children as the teaching day stretches out to 6pm.

There will also be problems in terms of keeping them in a subject group for longer. You might think that a two hour session now stretched to three hours would occur at different times. Not so; it will be a block of time. That means being faced by one person for three hours, even if there is now time to have say, two lectures split by a practical session. The average attention span of a student is 15 minutes these days, so that is going to be a problem for all concerned.

Another issue is commensurate with the paid work of students. If we are to allow them to still take up gainful employment, we will need to timetable their ‘longer’ classes for a few days to allow them to do full days work – the preference for our students. This naturally means that the days they are in campus they will be sat in classrooms for most of the day.

I for one have one day where I get a single hour free during a 9am to 5pm period. That means any comfort breaks must be taken on the run. You might consider that I will at least be able to eat lunch. However, you need to remember that students who have to spend all day on campus are also those who need tutorial help while they are no campus.

And so, I do not envisage being able to eat lunch that often. It is another action I shall have to carry out on the run; perhaps eating and toileting together in order to save time? As long as I remember which hand I am using, I should be OK.

Someone/institution with foresight would have made school visits in order to explain how university works; but who am I to suggest this? All I do is stand in front of classes for seven or eight hours a day.

To TEF and Back

The TEF results are out and it appears that no one really knows how to teach!

Surprised?

I expect there is a lot of head scratching going on in the higher echelons of plenty of universities today.

At Southampton University, the vice-chancellor was aghast at being awarded a bronze. He said it was “hard to have confidence in a TEF which appears devoid of any meaningful assessment of teaching”.

I have to agree as I was never benchmarked in the classroom. So did they actually come into classes and view the quality of lectures? Of course not, that would cost money, lots of money.

In addition, it is a very subjective assessment, with different benchmarks for each institution. How can that have any currency for students making decisions about where to study? This lack of equity in assessment makes a mockery of the exercise.

The Value of Everynothing

There is an interesting article in the news today ‘Students say university ‘value for money’ falling’. I thought it interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it was something I warned of a few years ago, and, secondly, because it comes at a time when students are voting in ever increasing numbers.

When fees were mooted I tried to advise my then HoD that it would open a door for consumer complaints, due in part to the notion that students could now put a ‘value’ on their education. Far from allowing students to see how much things cost and so understand they should put in more effort to gain the highest qualification possible, I advised it would allow them to evaluate every teaching session for a sense of ‘value for money’. This would now be the overriding concern of students rather than seeing how hard staff work to make sessions function as they should, student would sit back and silently say – “impress me”. This despite them not actually knowing what that might mean in real terms, other than whether the topic/delivery bored them or not.

My colleagues suggested that this could easily be negated by showing students how their money was being spent and why it was good value. Students of course, not being ones to understand that their fees pay for administrators, campus security, water bills, photocopying paper, telephone calls and personal tutorial time, as much as for the poor lecturer who has to excite them day after day, week after week.

I also pointed out that the rumours were true, teaching staff do spend less contact time with students, not out of choice, but out of necessity and workload ‘orders’. I for instance was only in front of a class for 10 hours a week at the time. However, it takes two hours to design, prepare and produce each hour in a class. This is after all HE and so there is no national curriculum to draw upon. In many ways, it would be useful, given that for every hour of class time I actually have four hours of non-teaching duties.

Some of you are now doing the maths on that and have come up with the result that fitting this into a 38 hour week is not possible, so must be untrue. However, I can assure you it is not untrue, my working week does span the 60 hour divide. I work most evenings and weekends and do not take leave until the summer months when I simply must have a break.

Of course this ‘summer’ time is when I am supposed to be at my most active non-teaching and non-administratively. So, instead of using my annual leave for relaxing, I am rushing round researching and writing. Yes, this will aid any career aspirations I might have in the long run, but in the short run, it is tiring. Other’s would use this leave (holidays) to go on holiday, or to do things with/for their family. Instead I sit forlornly looking out the window at the sun, listening to the sounds of people having fun, wishing I was them.

These are the things students should be made aware of, not the cost of photocopying paper. For them such trivialities are irrelevant; they focus on what they can see in front of them day-to-day – the lecturer. If my time is spent on non-teaching things, it is impossible to be in front of them for as long as they think in necessary to provide value for money.

You are probably wondering about that mention of voting earlier. Well, students voted in larger numbers this time and for parties that promised to eradicate fees if they won and even back-date that. Now that is ‘value for money’ in anyone’s book. The message that students pay for a host of things they use but do not think helps them gain their degree, is not getting through.

Of course it probably never will in a consumer focused society that turns everything into a cost. After all, who cares about workers in factories making high-end phones, it is only the quality of the phone that matters. Shoddy goods are made because workers are treated badly and paid little for their efforts.

Hang on, are there similarities here with how HE staff are treated by their employers? Low pay or below inflation pay rises, check. Staff expected to work more hours than they are paid for, check. Staff criticised for not being the ‘best’ or ‘most innovative’ lecturer, check. Staff criticised for not publishing at A* level, even though they have little time to do so, check. Staff criticised for not being ‘available’ to students 27/7, check. The list goes on, but you get the drift I am sure.

Students are the middle-aged voters of tomorrow, if they know the value of nothing today, then the future is going to have to be based on a consumerist notion of value in things, rather than people.

Perhaps we could put tags on everything to show the cost of each and every process on campus. 10p for flushing a toilet, 5p for loo roll, 50p for the lights being on while in a lecture, £2 for a lecture, etc..

That of course, is a recipe for a disaster no sane person would want.

So we are left back at the beginning, education is either free or someone has to do some very detailed explanations of the ‘value of things’. It would probably fall to the poor old lecturer again to do this as they are the very front-facing friction point for students. ‘Is that another job I have to do as part of my workload?’ Oh dear.

Board Time

February 12, 2017 Leave a comment

It has been one of those few weeks where you seriously consider the point of carrying on working.

Suddenly everyone wants work completed the day before yesterday, but they have not asked until the day after tomorrow!

What this tells me is two things. One they are stressed out and have been lumbered with more work than they can cope with. Secondly, and consequently, they have forgotten what they are supposed to be doing and only remember when it is too late to really do something about it.

Unfortunately I was on the receiving end of this stress driven anxiety the other day. A seemingly innocuous message arrived asking about a report they had asked me, by email, to write just before Christmas that was supposed to be due back that day.

‘What report was that?’ I enquired scouring my email for a hint of what I might have missed. I could find no trace of any email in my rather overstuffed work email account. A previous debacle had turned me into a hoarder of emails, so these days I rarely delete emails until they are at least three years old and some are kept in perpetuity.

Queue a headless chicken routine from the requester. This got particularly animated when I asked if they had been in contact before to enquire where  I was with said report. Of course they had not, probably too stressed to consider following up.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I spent a very bored day and night, about 18 hours in all, when I should have been doing something else completing their report. At which point you would think they would appear grateful. Not this person, their retort to me when I sent it to them was more like ‘and don’t leave it so late next time’!

As this was me doing them a favour in the first place – the scenario is too long to go into here – I suppose I was well within my rights to feel aggrieved a this.

I have resolved in future to do less favours and act more like the character in the cartoon below.

 

Categories: colleagues, jobs, life, students, work
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