A new Dark Age

August 20, 2015

My flabber was well and truly gasted when I read Sorana Vieru’s views on university education (“Sector ‘stuck in the Middle Ages’”, News, 13 August).

In what sense can the university curriculum and assessment methods (reflecting the stock of knowledge and good practice respectively) be said to be “unrepresentative”? Unrepresentative of what? Does not the use of continuous assessment, virtual learning environments, massive open online courses, as well as a focus on soft skills, distinguish contemporary higher education significantly from universities of the Middle Ages? When it is widely recognised that women are conspicuously under-represented in the professoriate, is Vieru seriously suggesting that standards of scholarship differ according to gender and/or ethnic background?

What evidence does Vieru have for her assertion that exams and essays privilege one group of students over another? It is naive to propose that a student’s (input) effort should be used as the criterion for awarding high marks when it is the assessment of (output) qualities – such as a student’s knowledge, reasoning skills or critical insights – that reflects more adequately the purposes of higher education. Moreover, to assume that students and their teachers are of “equal value” is to fail to recognise the necessary differences in their respective knowledge, expertise, experience, judgement and so on in connection with the choice of teaching methods, curriculum design or assessment strategies. If students are able to deal with these things in an effective manner before they have been through the system, why are they in the system at all?

Given her role as the National Union of Students’ vice-president (higher education), I worry about the ways in which Vieru’s misguided views might influence the perspectives of students in an unhelpful direction.

Richard Wilson
Emeritus professor, Loughborough University

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