Alison Wolf

November 19, 2004

'Have you noticed how the idea has spread that academics might be "overteaching" at the expense of activities such as packing in more students?'

Teaching, the original raison d'êre of universities, is now a poor second to research and keeping up on the audit trail

You can have research institutes that do not teach. There are universities in the world that do no research, although many academics hate the idea.

But surely you cannot have a university without students? And they should not merely be present but central to its existence.

Gordon Graham, in his excellent book Universities: The Recovery of an Idea , quotes the Papal Bull that authorised the creation of his own university. This must have been written in Latin, but it sounds wonderful in translation. If in the "famous city of Old Aberdeen", the Bull says, there "should flourish a university... very many men would apply themselves to (the) study of letters and acquire that most precious pearl of knowledge, the ignorant would be informed, and the rude become learned".

Those words encapsulate how universities began. They were communities of both students and teachers. But today, in universities with ambition, senior managers give priority to research first, consultancy and overseas recruitment second, and home students and teaching third. Have you noticed how the idea has spread that academics might be "overteaching" at the expense of other activities (such as packing in more students)?

The reason, of course, is that time spent on "core" teaching offers little by way of terrestrial rewards. It does not bring international kudos: students and sponsors are attracted in the first instance by the reputation of star researchers whose achievements are measured in citations, prizes and research rankings.

Today's emphasis on research over teaching is common currency. It comes from academic careers that have been forged globally, from the shift to mass higher education and from government capping costs and payments, especially for target undergraduate programmes. Teaching and learning are also undermined by other contemporary phenomena, such as our formal and "transparent" procedures, the auditing culture and the general loss of trust in professionals.

We know quite a lot about how to encourage learning, notably the importance of "formative" feedback. This needs to come during a course, not after it; and it needs to be divorced, as far as possible, from any formal marking or grading so that students focus on the content of the feedback. Yet modern trends militate against providing such feedback, especially, I suspect, in the UK.

One of my research students is, somehow, combining doctoral work with running an expanding department in a successful new university. She has been studying "formative assessment" in an institution that is formally committed to its provision and has documented what most of us instinctively know - that providing effective feedback is, on most courses, most of the time, totally and demonstrably impossible.

The problem is only partly class sizes and the sheer time burden that would be imposed. The relentless, immovable deadlines are equally to blame.

Most degrees are modular, often with assessment two or three times a year.

Marks have to be fed into central systems ready for the exam boards; results must be posted to establish if prerequisites have been met for further courses; re-entry forms must be filed in time if replacement exams are to be set.

Obligations become more formal and specific each year, for both students and staff. If coursework is not handed in on time, it simply will not be marked. If grades are not returned within a specific period, students have formal grounds for complaint.

This rigid formalisation is familiar enough to any student of bureaucracy or of mass production generally. It has undoubtedly been given a further twist by "quality assurance" requirements. In our audit culture, we have to document everything, with formal procedures to cover any eventuality and paper trails that purport to show that procedures are indeed observed. This involves a lot of time: time taken from wherever it is easiest to cut back or cut corners. That has to include teaching.

Pervasive mistrust adds a final twist. Students were once examined orally by their teachers: and in some countries such exams survive. In the UK, the trend is towards total anonymity, even on coursework. This shows a touching faith that markers know who students are and have formed judgements that could bias them. It also, of course, puts paid to any possibility of formative comment, so by the time students learn anything about how they are doing, the course is pretty much finished - and so is their motivation to learn any more about it.

Never mind: these days, we are meant to be encouraging "self-directed learning". So I guess we can just leave the students to it. At least we will be able to make it to the next meeting on time.

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.

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