The annual lecture of the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) was delivered on 23 January by Mary Curnock Cook, the former chief executive of Ucas.
Curnock Cook is a brave woman: she noted at the outset that CDBU was opposed to managerialism and consumerism, so as a businesswoman she was knowingly strolling into a den of growling carnivores. She was able to subdue the fiercest beasts by stressing her own transformational experience of higher education, the importance of equipping students with what she termed “cognitive agility”, and the contrast between the nature of educational experience in school and university. For those of us who are worrying that the quality of education is starting to be equated with the quantity of “contact hours”, this was reassuring common ground.
But – and you knew a “but” was coming – at times, Curnock Cook appeared to be channeling Jo Johnson. The former universities minister is someone who always made me wonder if he really was sincere – in which case his understanding of his brief was wildly distorted – or whether he was deliberately demonising the sector for which he was responsible – in which case one could only assume serious Machiavellian tendencies.
Curnock Cook did not seem Machiavellian, so we have to conclude that she has bought into the Johnson view of higher education.
The tension between the speaker and her audience was palpable from the outset, when she explained that she had reason to be apprehensive about addressing CDBU because she was a “defender of the student interest”. This theme continued throughout the lecture: at numerous points, she treated it as given that the interests of academics conflicted with those of students. She described her own experience at business school where a lecturer recycled the same old slides across two courses – implying that laziness was commonplace. And why was teaching neglected? Because academics were just interested in research!
This bears no relation to my experience of how academics view students. I’m an unusual case: a full-time researcher who is not required to teach at all, but I do a few hours of (unpaid) teaching each year because I love my subject and I want to inspire fresh young minds with the same passion.
Nothing quite beats the thrill of seeing a student move from incomprehension or lack of interest to intellectual excitement. I don’t want to exaggerate: one can get stale if required to repeat the same material over and over, or if the students are not interested in studying. And ancillary activities, such as admissions or marking, can be stressful and time-consuming. But in general, most of my colleagues treat academia as a vocation and regard the young as the future.
The idea that we’re all neglecting students because we’re obsessed with research misses the role of incentives. The research excellence framework (REF) has had a pernicious influence by linking research outputs to financial rewards for institutions, so that academics may put their careers at risk if they prioritise teaching over research. I’m well known for being a strong critic of the teaching excellence framework (TEF): there are several reasons for this, one of which is that it is neither valid nor reliable as a measure of teaching excellence. But the other is that you have a whole group of people who’ve been evaluated largely on the basis of their research activities who are now told to jump through a new set of hoops to demonstrate their teaching excellence – while presumably maintaining a world-class research profile. It is vice-chancellors, with an eye to the money, who determine these priorities – not the jobbing academic.
So overall, I was disappointed that Curnock Cook reinforced the idea that universities are places of privilege where the staff want to sit idly around thinking great thoughts, taking no heed of student needs, and that without firm regulation from an Office for Students, we’ll just continue in this dissolute fashion. For a group of people who already have the interests of higher education at heart, this is hard to swallow.
Dorothy Bishop is professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford.