Select your cane, it's time for a good thrashing

May 19, 2006

Trust and free speech fly out the window as universities kowtow to the Government, argues Simon Larter

The end of my second year is only days away, the pay dispute is having a direct impact on students and I remain frustrated that university is not the hotbed of open discussion and rigour that I had expected.

I want time among my cohort to dig deeper into ideas and I want lecturers to push us to make that happen. Getting near a first is much harder than I had anticipated and I am anxious about my final year. This is a good thing - it makes me think harder.

But I still cannot escape the politically unpalatable observation that in an era of mass higher education institutions have been forced to adopt a safe middle ground to give them the best chance of survival.

Lecturers express constant frustration with students' lack of contribution to their own learning, and they are under increasing pressure to spoon-feed students to get them through to the next year.

What other choices are there when the political penalties for failure are so damning? At my university, retention is a prime focus and motivates staff to find ways that will encourage students to join in and do the work.

I am not convinced that this strategy will bring academic excellence, but I agree that exposure to higher education brings wider social benefits for all. That has to be a good thing, provided the corollary isn't mediocrity for all.

Yet, while the sector is obsessed with measuring institutional performance, basic standards of learning and aptitude on entry don't seem to figure in this university's retention strategy. Maybe, given that you can't do much to to influence these standards, and that this university is morally interested in widening access, it is pointless considering them.

The problem appears to be that the modern higher education institution is in thrall to a Government that can't talk about failure. Universities are coerced into taking on a remedial role, which they have to accept in much the same way that public schoolboys used to choose the cane with which they wanted to be thrashed.

After I stood down from the university senate over its refusal to discuss its policy about withholding pay over industrial disputes, one of the pro vice-chancellors collared me to explain the difficult position they were in. He assured me that they have to be seen, at least publicly, to be supporting the students.

This confirmed the duplicity of management and why I was right to leave senate. Universities should be about free speech and looking for truth, and students and teachers should be connected in this pursuit, not separated.

But, as some educational philosophers tell me, truth is a social construct - which is very convenient when the wages are low, the students are sometimes reluctant and someone else is in charge of the construct.

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