Leader: Value is no cause for complaint

Students have to see that higher education is worth far more than what they pay in tuition fees and that it must be earned

June 4, 2009

"This guy is HARD; he marks hard. I got a D on my first assignment and usually get an A. Who the hell does he think he is? This guy makes huge demands on you, and marks you down just for the fun of it."

This posting on RateMyProfessors.com for a UK academic now teaching in the US, where student evaluation is commonplace and can affect tenure and promotion decisions, illustrates the problem with feedback: you're not likely to get much thanks for making someone work and earn their grades.

No one denies that students should have a say in their education, but the growing importance of student-satisfaction surveys represents a worrying shift in the balance of power. Formalised feedback is useful, but the action by the students' union at the University of Bolton - asking students to rate academics' performance anonymously by giving a mark out of ten on a postcard that is placed in their pigeonhole (a low-tech RateMyProfessors) - is irresponsible and bullying.

What will the mark tell us? Will students score positively for a lenient teacher? Or will they seek revenge for being given a bad grade? Are students better placed to judge what is good for them educationally than academics with years of experience? If they are indeed consumers of an educational package, isn't it precisely that knowledge and experience they are paying for? As Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, argues: "One of the most distinct and significant dimensions of academic and intellectual activity is that it does not give customers what they want ... Academic dialogue and instruction does not seek to offer what the customer wants, but attempts to provide what the customer needs."

Whatever they need, students are certainly complaining more. But some perspective is needed. The headlines may have screamed of a 23 per cent rise in the number of complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education last year. But there were only 900 complainants (out of an overall student body of more than 2 million) and just 63 complaints (7 per cent) were upheld.

The right to complain came in on the coat-tails of tuition fees, and the biggest problem here is the word "tuition". Students at the University of Bristol recently rebelled over a proposal for fewer teaching hours and larger seminar groups, saying it was unacceptable that "since 2006 the university has charged more and delivered less". Opening their wallets makes students believe that they are "purchasing" teaching, not an education, and there is a huge difference. Teaching implies a one-way process; education, however, is a two-way street: the academic teaches, but the student puts in the effort to learn.

We know much about the bottom line on the costs and benefits to an individual of a university education, but what about the non-monetary payoffs? Walter W. McMahon, an educational economist, set out to calculate the value of the less immediately visible returns. In his new book Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education, he argues that 48 per cent of a higher education brings better job opportunities, improved earnings and health; the other 52 per cent delivers social benefits: promoting democracy and sustainable growth and reducing state welfare costs and crime. If the true cost of a university education is, as has been mooted, three times the student's contribution, then the UK is giving pretty good value for money.


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