Couldn't teach a dog to sit

July 26, 1996

One of my biggest concerns during my three years as an undergraduate was the variation in teaching quality. As a recent graduate of Leeds University I feel that students' needs have low priority within the higher education system.

There is a communication barrier between students and university management, and very little is being done to resolve the problem. University lecturers are not required to have teaching experience or qualifications and this is often very apparent.

Many of my lecturers had an amazing ability to impart information in an interesting way, their lectures were always packed with enthusiastic, eager-to-learn students. Unfortunately I also endured lecturers with IQs to match Einstein's, who have written a series of theses and libraries of books, but who could not teach a dog to sit. Their lectures were always half empty. Students who did turn up struggled to keep awake. Having spoken to friends at other colleges, this appears to be a nationwide problem.

At school useless teachers are given hell and you can guarantee that they will have resigned, or been fired, by the end of term. At university it takes more than a stink bomb and a few paper aeroplanes to get rid of some of these characters. Once lecturers are established it seems that it is almost impossible to get rid of them. Most universities have no effective complaints procedures. Grievances systems are little more than decorations in obscure backwaters of officialdom.

Every semester I filled out appraisal sheets on each tutor and lecturer. These questionnaires were anonymous and I know that most students gave honest, well thought-out answers. Diabolical lecturers got sheets of constructive criticism; and, some very rude advice! Yet there is a general feeling among scholars that this is merely a safety valve for student frustration. The completed forms certainly seem to be ignored. The same teacher will be back next semester with the same failings. A teaching qualification should be a requirement for all university teaching staff. It is all very well being knowledgeable about a subject, but unless you can communicate that information to others it is pointless being in the teaching profession.

Students also feel cheated by lecturers' poor attendance records. Several times I had tutorials or lectures cancelled because the lecturer was making a radio appearance, teaching overseas or off trying to get research backing. If somebody is hired to teach, they have a duty to attend every class. Illness is the only acceptable excuse for absence. Research is of course a vital part of a university's role, but most students attend for only 30 weeks a year. That leaves plenty of time for academic staff to carry out their other duties.

When lecturers do appear it is to increasingly overcrowded auditoriums. The number of teaching staff has not increased in proportion with the number of students. I've been in lectures where people have had to stand up or sit on the floor due to lack of seating. In some of my seminar groups this year there were over 30 students squashed into a room a little bigger than a garden shed. There was little opportunity for everybody to be heard. This epitomises the undemocratic nature of university life as a whole.

I have come to view the governing bodies as all-powerful structures that could do as they wish without having to account to those to whom they are supposed to be providing a service. I graduated in communications studies. This was a new course. I was among the first intake. When I registered it was understood that eight courses would be available in the third year. At the end of the second year, 25 per cent of these options were arbitrarily withdrawn. Students feel cheated. Universities must not initiate new courses, advertise exciting modules and then turn around and say, "I'm sorry this is no longer on offer".

Students themselves are also to blame for not taking strong action when unpopular changes like this occur. Many are reluctant to complain, fearing that tutors could reflect their annoyance at the criticisms in their marking and references. Others feel that there is no positive action that can be taken. Once a complaint goes through the so-called "internal complaints procedure", under the Higher Education Charter, it can be passed on to the Higher Education Quality Council if it falls within their remit. But if the HEQC does uphold the complaint it cannot force an institution to take action.

This reinforces the general feeling of powerlessness among students. Universities need to be made more responsible for their actions. British universities are famous for promoting free thinking and individual liberty. It is about time they started to practise what they preach.

Anna Tobin has just graduated from Leeds University.

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