Standards fall when satisfaction is the name of the game

Treating students as consumers has precipitated a rush to the bottom to give them exactly what they want, says John Warren

August 25, 2016
Elly Walton illustration (25 August 2016)
Source: Elly Walton

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.

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Print headline: Standards fall when offering satisfaction is the name of the game

Reader's comments (10)

Best and most honest piece I've read in the THE for quite some time. But why do people only pluck up courage to spill these home truths when they've secured a safe berth overseas? So much for speaking truth to power.
Possibly because telling the truth can get one sacked and most people are not independently wealthy and therefore need an income.
A very interesting article and I share some of the sentiments expressed. I also believe that our output if there is one is to society and the organizations that benefit from our graduates' skills and knowledge. @ Philip Evans A disingenuous comment. It is clear from the article that the author has fought his localized educational "battles" (cue the third year undergraduate assessment) and probably lost most of these "battles", sadly... Sometimes is best to acknowledge defeat at some point and move on; life is too short.
An interesting view, much of which I agree with. It is crucial our vice chancellors challenge the atheoretical nonsense that is the NSS, it is pure hypocrisy to not do so for a sector that is meant to promote critical theory and evidence based practice. However, there is a current reality to deal with and we can work with this. We have just been hammered in the NSS - some of it is fair a lot is not, but we can't ignore it. As a course team we have a very good understanding of cognitive and metacognitive development and the journey we want students to follow, but we have to look at the world through their eyes as well and recognise what the implications are for that in terms of the metrics we will be measured through irrespective of their validity (until someone actually does something about them). Looking for the best path through the complexity is our job - indeed it is the job we are try to prepare students for. Pragmatic decisions don't have lead us to sell our soul to the devil.
A lot of important points in both the article and the comments. Similar things have happened in my own institution which hasn't done that "well" in the weird world of NSS (87% overall). We've also had to accept forced top-down changes to module content based on student feedback in relation to statistics (e.g. chi square considered "too difficult" by too many, so now assessment criteria have changed to indicate that they are "allowed" to pass with good grades by making what are essentially spurious claims and assertions based on cross tabs). This is aimed at getting the student "satisfaction" score up but of course it does nothing to improve their numeracy and presumably, in the long term, their "employability". As the author points out, it is society and employers that are the ultimate 'consumer' of our student 'product', and too many of them are still carrying poor literacy and numeracy skills into the workplace and beyond. But these changes, which dishearten so many of us are, of course, a consequence of the change in university funding and indicative of a broader systemic and political problem. It is interesting to note that the author is leaving Aberystwyth, a university which was/is in serious difficulties. Their big jump in NSS this year may in part, I'm afraid to say, be due to a significant decline in their 'standards' of assessments: "All may have prizes!" And so you can't really blame individual senior managers within the institution for adopting that strategy when their priority has to be not how to raise educational standards, but how to keep the place afloat. Sad. :-(
I don't know you John but I wish I could have worked for/with you; what you write is spot on and engaging. There are many of our 'colleagues' who make good livings out of the false world of consumerism within HE, and you are correct to highlight the attendant fall in standards. Good luck in your new position.
It is true that treating students as consumers and degrees as products is highly problematic - but a return to exams is the worst solution imaginable. It is counterproductive. It does not test for knowledge but instead it tests performance under time duress and causes nothing but anxiety, whilst worsening the trend of students just regurgitating facts. Assessed coursework is the best method for testing student knowledge and understanding. It has nothing with appeasing students. It tests whether they can digest the recent literature and report new findings, how a field progresses and identify future research directions successfully. The focus of coursework should be to write new literature reviews in the relevant subjects, combined with the collection, analysis and interpretation of data. Activities that are already a part of all respected degrees.
Many students can't cope with the coursework either, and often have to turn to renumerable support from outside sources ... not really surprising, given the emphasis on the student as a consumer not as a scholar. You are deluding yourself if you believe you are in control of your coursework, or if you believe that you will be given resources to indulge in coursework experimentation. Assessment is in meltdown and it's another elephant in the room. In fairness to the article though, whilst assessment method was a significant component of what is wrong with consumerism within HE, assessment dumbing is the greater problem ... we are revising what we assess students in, in order they can pass through. Have you not noticed that??
My undergraduate degree was based solely on final exams. I had six unseen three hour exams which, unluckily for me, fell over just four days. I fully understand the case that assessment should be based on a variety of techniques aimed at developing different skills, but I don't think that what I and my fellow students achieved in our finals could be described as simply based on rote learning and regurgitation. Like many workplace tasks, exams require intense preparation based on making an initial commitment to the exam 'project'. You need to develop your ability to focus and concentrate, to retrieve accurate, relevant information from memory, and to express arguments in the written form, in a concise manner, at speed. And yes, as frequently occurs in the workplace, all of this needs to be done under pressure, time constraints and stress. Exams can and do help students develop employability skills and continue to have a useful and valuable place in assessment alongside other techniques. But of course, as this article indicates, they are a much less 'comfortable' mode of assessment for students than other methods. So, in a world of NSS and TEF, then their use is minimised to keep the customer happy and satisfied.
Well argued. I wish there were more students (and also more of my colleagues) capable of 'getting' the points you make.

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