A study in anarchy

Universities must do right by students, but if Donald Short's experience is anything to go by, they are falling well short

August 20, 2009

Today, thousands of university hopefuls wait to see if they make the grade. If recent history repeats itself, many will, but what can they expect from higher education?

In 2007, after a gap of 19 years, 14 of which I spent as a teacher, I returned to higher education to complete an MA in fine art.

Day one, I joined a group comprising an interesting range of postgraduates from different disciplines, backgrounds and cultures. Nervously, I flicked through the impressive course ring binder: on paper, at least, it looked excellent. Seminars, which took place once a week, were divided into themes, the first of which was titled "Staging". An image of 2,000 naked people occupying a city street seemed an appropriate place to begin.

More images followed, along with film clips in what can only be described as a shambolic display. Quite what all this had to do with our individual projects was never made clear, and the course leader seemed unable to harness the group's contribution into any sort of learning outcome.

Collectively bemused, we used the mid-seminar recess to regroup in the cafe. "You are a teacher, aren't you?" asked one. "Perhaps you could tell me what that was all about?" Sadly, I could not.

I secured a studio space to work in and duly contacted my assigned supervisor, who had been unwittingly recruited from the undergraduate course. Two months later, he told me he had just been informed of his supervisory status and apologised for not seeing me more. In truth, he had not been allotted the hours to do the job.

This was not an isolated incident of administrative incompetence, either. One student remained unsupervised until well after the first phase of assessment in January, more than three months into the course.

The new year brought a change of course leader and the first round of assessment. The area that caused the most concern was the written element. Its criteria were quite explicit, but amazingly, a number of my peers were told by their supervisors not to place too much importance on this aspect. In fact, one undergraduate lecturer brought in to supervise and assess not only admitted that she didn't have the time to read the written element, but also that she hadn't been briefed on the criteria.

Predictably, there was widespread discontent with the outcome of the first assessment. In response, a number of students simply didn't bother to submit study plans for the second phase of the course. When it came to the next round of assessment in April, one student mischievously copied and pasted a recipe for strawberry shortcake into the supposedly crucial methodology section of his written submission. All these apparently important lapses went unnoticed and the students passed on to the final summative stage.

It took place over the summer. As well as having to complete new work, there was a lot to organise for the September degree show. Imagine our surprise to be told that the acting course leader had booked his holiday and would not be around for a crucial part of the summer.

And so we were left to bring the course to its conclusion. I got on with making supports for canvases, only to be accosted by a technician and informed that the head of faculty had told him that the MA was theoretical, not practical, so I shouldn't be painting and "wasting" his wood.

Ten months in, the truth was out: the course, despite being validated, did not really exist, or, more to the point, no one understood what it was - not the course leaders, nor the assessors and certainly not the students.

For many students, today will be one of the happiest moments of their lives. Universities have a responsibility to them, not least because of the considerable financial burdens they will bear as a result of their studies, to provide the highest possible standard of education.

Recent surveys suggest that this is not the case, and certainly in my experience the standard was not very good. I can only hope that the thousands of students who start their studies this autumn fare better.

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