As I prepare to depart the UK to help run a small university in Papua New Guinea, I confess that there are many aspects of British higher education that I will not be sorry to leave behind. But the more I reflect on my decade as a director of learning and teaching, the more firmly I conclude that it all comes down to one thing: the view that students are consumers.
This view will only be further cemented when the teaching excellence framework is introduced, but it is utterly misguided. Students are, instead, the end product of our industry. If there is a consumer at all, it is society and employers.
The market failures that results from this misconception are illustrated by my own field: biological sciences. Zoologists outnumber plant scientists across the UK by at least 500 to 1. The reason is that, on leaving school, many aspire to be Sir David Attenborough. A rough calculation shows that the ratio of jobs to new graduates in zoology is about 1:80, whereas, in plant biology, it is nearer 1:2. If you enter the phrase “botanists are” into Google, it predicts “in demand”. We have left the supply of graduates to the whims of student choice, with the consequence that the UK is forced to import plant scientists from abroad: apparently not the sort of thing the 17 million Leave supporters voted for in the recent European Union referendum.
Perhaps of even greater significance are the problems resulting from trying to keep the “customer” satisfied. The National Student Survey and league tables that include the student voice play a central role in driving this nonsense. In a market in which universities compete for student numbers, even if the NSS had statistical validity (which, without error bars, it does not) it would still cause dumbing-down. For example, this year I have been pressured to drop a final-year biological science assignment because students tell us it is too mathematically difficult – even though the most challenging aspect of the task is calculating a percentage. Similar pressures have seen other institutions drop statistics from biological science degrees.
This is possible in part because it is still not clear what a graduate in any particular discipline should be expected to know. Most subject benchmark statements are as vague as the manifestos of political parties, and many degree subjects have no bespoke benchmarks, instead cherry-picking elements from several related areas. Ensuring consistency of content and quality is the responsibility of the Quality Assurance Agency, yet academics the length and breadth of the country openly admit that what is actually happening is a race to the bottom on standards, as universities clamber to provide their supposed customers with exactly what they want.
This consumerism is also the cause of universities’ focus on assessment rather than education. Of course both are important, but when qualifications are products, it’s the arriving and not the journey that matters. Students obsess about the perceived unfairness of being asked to work harder than others to achieve the same goal. As a result, universities introduce crazy regulations specifying how long essays must be, based on the number of credits the associated module is worth.
But I don’t believe in grumbling without suggesting solutions. In my view, scrapping modularisation and assessment via coursework would rectify much of the above. Abandoning final exams was done with the best of intentions, but it was based on the naive view that it was possible to rote-learn the entire contents of a three-year degree without understanding it. This may have been true for a few individuals, as strange and rare as unicorns, but it was never a routine problem. For almost all normal people, the only way to retain so much information is to understand it. By contrast, rote memorisation is relatively easy when it’s broken into bite-sized modular chunks and the learning outcomes are defined in such a way that question-spotting is child’s play.
I don’t advocate the unreformed return of final exams. Asking students to merely assemble information and regurgitate it is not useful in a world that is now drowning in it. The modern challenge is to identify reliable and relevant information from the thousands of pages returned by every Google search.
The problem academics face, meanwhile, is to detect non-original coursework when hosts of websites offer all kinds of assignments at very affordable prices. This is not a battle we should be trying to fight. Coursework is an invaluable part of the learning process. But as soon as one assignment contributes to the students’ final mark, any non-assessed work becomes devalued in this consumer-driven world.
Final exams for the modern era could be problem-based or practical exercises that test more than just the ability to write essays under stressful conditions. But, of course, no university will be brave enough to ditch assessed coursework because if there is one thing that the customer really does not like, it is exams.
John Warren is vice-chancellor at the University of Natural Resources and the Environment in Papua New Guinea.