Would you fail the Trades Description Act?

August 16, 2002

Universities should stop producing promotional material that resembles travel brochures, says Frank Furedi.

I have a lot sympathy for 54-year-old Mike Austen. Last month, this mature law student won £30,000 from the University of Wolverhampton in an out-of-court settlement. Usually, I am very unsympathetic to the intrusion of our litigious climate into academic life. But then Austen had a lot to grouse about. He complained about having to put up with overcrowded lecture halls and circumstances where students were turned away from seminars because they could not all be jammed into the room. On one occasion, Austen claims he drove for 45 minutes to his seminar only to find out that it was full. He was less than pleased when he discovered that some of his course assignments and course guides were "riddled with errors of grammar, punctuation and syntax". Once, while sitting one of his final papers, the examination was interrupted twice by anxious invigilators: first to correct two important errors in the examination paper and second to chuck out some students found cheating.

Austen's resort to litigation was justified on the grounds of breach of contract and misrepresentation. He argues that his experience as a first-year law student bore no relationship to the "inflated" claims made about his course by Wolverhampton. He recalls that the institution described itself as "a first-class regional university providing an excellent learning experience". Austen stated that the promotional material sent to him by Wolverhampton cited a student who said: "I was offered Oxford; I was offered Cambridge; it had to be Walsall - it's great". For Austen at least, it wasn't Am I the only academic who reacts to this episode with the question "whose turn is it next"? Overcrowded lecture halls and seminar rooms, chaotic delivery of teaching or under-resourced libraries and support services are not confined to one struggling institution of higher education. Anyone, such as former airline pilot Austen, who has experienced professional standards of management in the "real world" will be struck by the state of disorganisation that prevails on many campuses. Mature students in particular, who expect to be treated as adults, are often shocked by the makeshift character of their course delivery. I know of several examples including a woman who was four weeks into her course before she was told the time and day of her seminars.

There is little doubt that many universities could be done under the Trades Description Act. These days, the promotion material distributed by universities resembles a dodgy travel brochure in more ways than one. They both contain lots of colourful pictures. They both promise excitement and wonderful experiences. And sadly, frequently they both bear little relationship to reality. Most of us who at one time or another arrived at a holiday destination that bore no resemblance to the idyllic scenes depicted in the brochure will know just how some students must feel. Too often the promise of an "excellent learning experience" turns into a dismal experience of confusion and chaos.

Unfortunately, universities will continue to produce glossy brochures that promise far more than they can deliver because they are under government pressure to get more bums on lecture hall seats. Hustling potential students is an understandable response by institutions, whose credibility and funding depends on recruiting more students. In circumstances where the funds available for each student have fallen as the numbers of students have risen, the experience of students such as Austen will inevitably become more common.

How does a university work when it is driven by the constant pressure to recruit more students rather than by academic objectives? Today, universities will take just about anybody off the streets. In 1989, universities accepted 60 per cent of home applicants. Almost 80 per cent were accepted in 2000 and it is likely that this upward trend will continue until the application procedure becomes an empty formality. Dogmatic advocates of this "bring them all in" approach praise this development as a sign that new initiatives designed to widen participation are working. But there is no getting away from the fact that "new initiative" has become a euphemism for lowering the standard of entry.

It has been reported that some lawyers now believe that Austen's victory represents an important gain for the consumer rights of all university students. However, litigation is neither likely to improve the quality of academic life nor to make universities more accountable. Universities simply lack the resources to deliver the kind of educational experience advertised in their brochures. Of course, institutions cannot ignore the threat of litigation. But their response tends to consist of litigation-avoidance measures rather than initiatives designed to improve levels of performance. Litigation-avoidance measures usually mean putting in place formal systems of quality assurance that provide evidence in case of a complaint. Sadly, devoting resources to the construction of the already ubiquitous paper trails will do little to improve the quality of campus life. It merely leads to the expansion of bureaucratisation and the formalisation of academic life.

Neither does the threat of litigation ensure that students get what they pay for. Student complaints tend to focus on the more visible aspects of the problem. Complaints may represent a reaction to a cancelled class, overcrowded seminar, incoherent course material, lack of contact with academics or inadequate library resources. These are genuine issues that demand action.

However, there are far more serious problems that are often imperceptible to the new generation of students. They are unlikely to be aware of the steadily decreasing content of the curriculum and the decline of contact time with teachers. Neither will they be sensitive to the onward march of grade inflation and the diminishing status now attached to some degrees. Yet it is these under-the-surface processes that have the most dramatic impact on the quality of university education. Maybe a few degree certificates should be tested under the Trades Description Act.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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