What do we say on the tin?

In competitive times, it's hard to avoid hype in a prospectus, says Tim Birkhead

November 4, 2010

University prospectuses have become holiday brochures. The sun is always shining, the swimming pool a deep cerulean blue, the rooms and food immaculate.

Having taken an interest in my children's university applications, I advised them to ignore what was said in the prospectus, but to rely more on visit days and recommendations from friends. The government is right, university prospectuses are nonsense: it simply is not true that everything in the garden is wonderful and all universities are brilliant at everything.

Ironically, this state of affairs is a direct result of the government creating a market in which universities compete for candidates. If the University of Poppleton says its course in "Porcine fMRI studies" is the best, its rivals have no option but to make an even stronger claim - a process easily explained by game theory and, oh yes, common sense.

Like so many aspects of higher education, government-induced competition has pushed advertising too far. Now, prompted by the financial crisis, the university prospectus will have to change. The impending hike in tuition fees means that undergraduates will want better value for money, and to help them get that, advertising has to become more honest. But will it?

The bizarre thing is that at the same time that universities are being forced to become more honest, they are being forced to compete even more intensively for undergraduates. There's a biological analogy here. In evolutionary terms, we can think of the need for more undergraduates and more honesty as conflicting selection pressures.

An example: molecular parentage studies have shown that - contrary to what was once thought - males and females of most species are promiscuous. This means that males compete to fertilise females' eggs - a process known as "sperm competition". Here's the conflict: in terms of genetic descendants, if you are a male it pays you to ensure that you (and you alone) father your partner's eggs. At the same time, however, it pays you to father the eggs of other male's females. These conflicting selection pressures - offence and defence - create powerful evolutionary forces, resulting in some extraordinary and extreme adaptations, including enormous intromittent organs, colossal cojones, and vast numbers of sophisticated sperm. The more intense the conflict, the more rapidly such traits evolve.

The conflict in higher education is already intense, and is about to become more so. With enormous fees, students are, more than ever, going to want value for money and they are going want better, more honest, information to help them get better value. Honest advertising? An oxymoron if ever there was one.

Contact time has become a key issue and advertising it a minefield.

There are three issues that we will need to make clear to prospective undergraduates:

Defining what is meant by contact time.

A thousand hours of contact time can mean either a single one-hour lecture given to 1,000 undergraduates, or 1,000 one-on-one tutorials. How will that difference (and every nuance in between) be made clear?

Recognising that not all subjects require the same amount of contact.

How does one compare those subjects in which undergraduates are required to do considerable amounts of reading, as often occurs in the humanities, with those subjects where they are given more practical guidance? For students on reading-intensive courses, contact time has to be less than that of a medical student learning to dissect the delicate parts of a human body, where closer supervision is essential.

Independent learning is a crucial aspect of a university degree. The ability to think is what employers say they want, and learning to think often requires figuring things out for yourself (followed by some discussion with a tutor). Degrees that claim to maximise contact time, at the expense of independent study, will simply perpetuate the unthinking, umbilical culture created by the national curriculum.

Differentiating between quantity and quality.

Some institutions use research students rather than academic staff to run tutorials or practical classes. Will that be specified in the prospectus? Many graduates are superb natural teachers, and being younger often relate better to undergraduates than old farts. But sometimes, of course, a lack of experience means that they are worse.

Even among old hands, the quality of teaching varies enormously. One idea to rectify this is to ensure that all new lecturers gain a teaching qualification. "Brilliant!" some may say. But then, there are plenty of teachers in schools who have had similar training but are far from brilliant. Adding a qualification will do little, I suspect, to improve the quality of teaching. Universities have many good teachers that have had no formal training, but have instead, experience, empathy and enthusiasm.

I'm intrigued by how universities are going to advertise themselves honestly.

Administrators are going to have a wonderful time generating masses of promotional material dealing with the kinds of issues I've just outlined. But let's be honest, the scope for obfuscation in the new prospectuses is immense. To use another evolutionary analogy, this is a classic example of the Red Queen. Strong selection pressures generate a plethora of extraordinary adaptations, but ultimately, there is no "going forward". We can run as fast as we like, but in terms of the prospectus, we are going to remain on the same spot.

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