Big bad Nanny is watching you

October 20, 2006

Keeping covert tabs on students is not a 'support' strategy, it's a method of control,says Frank Furedi

Last month, I received an e-mail from an undergraduate at Napier University. She wrote that "odd things are going on around me" and that she had been shocked to discover that her university had, without consultation, introduced an electronic tagging system for monitoring undergraduates, called the Uni-Nanny. "Students aren't children, they are adults who choose to learn, and this coercive system is incompatible with who we are," she noted. Sadly, it is her own image of a student, as an intelligent adult, that is becoming incompatible with the ethos of the contemporary university.

As a result of the mindless expansion of higher education, a growing proportion of students have only an episodic relationship with their institutions, and truancy is now becoming a university as well as a school problem. It is this that has sparked the call for new control techniques.

Glamorgan University announced its adoption of the Uni-Nanny spying system thus: "As Oxford University introduces legally binding contracts requiring students to attend lectures, experts at the faculty of advanced technology at the University of Glamorgan in South Wales have come up with a solution to track students' attendance at lectures." In other words:"If Oxford can do it, so can we, but in a more technologically advanced way."

The adoption of Uni-Nanny is disturbingly Orwellian because not only does it represent the bureaucratic ambition of spying on students' activities, but it justifies itself through the rhetoric of doublespeak. For Orwell, doublespeak is language that is constructed to disguise or distort its actual meaning. So advocates of Uni-Nanny dismiss the idea that monitoring has anything to do with control and discipline.

Peter Crofts, Glamorgan's head of marketing and recruitment, claims that it is not about control but about providing a useful resource for "helping" and "supporting" students. The company that markets Uni-Nanny claims the device aims "to support students who silently disengage". Crofts observes:

"This is a mechanism for helping us help them and to ensure that they are not coming out with the lower results they would have got if they had skipped lectures." Napier says it is trialling the system as part of its "student support strategy".

There was a time when support had something to do with helping, assisting, comforting or providing financial aid. It is only since the ascendancy of management-speak that support means the creation of a system of control that puts people under pressure to do what you want them to do.

The electronic surveillance of student attendance has nothing to do with genuine support. It is an attempt to find a technological solution to a very serious problem, which is the disengagement of a substantial section of the student population from academic life. Many universities are worried about the number of students who are just going through the motions of studying and end up dropping out. That is why policing techniques are likely to be the next new skill offered in staff development courses.

"It is not as easy as it used to be for lecturers to keep an eye on who's turned up and who's missing," Crofts argues. Too true. But do we want to convey the impression to students that the threat of punishment is the way we fill our lecture halls? Supporting them, whether they like it or not, sounds like a back-door attempt to extend compulsory education.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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