Do you seriously want the meek and mild type?

July 14, 2006

Academics grumble that students' parents are aggressive. But Raphael Salkie feels they aren't aggressive enough

So our students' parents are getting aggressive, demanding to know how their children are doing and not taking no for an answer (News, July 7). Are they really? In my experience, most parents give us academics a ridiculously easy time.

Before they offload their son or daughter into our care, they should be asking tough questions about some of the things that really matter. Who teaches the first-years? How big are the seminar groups? Are the teaching and assessment mechanical and routine, or do they excite students and challenge them to think for themselves? Are personal tutors friendly and available, or do they scream "Go away and leave me alone!" - as happened to a member of my family on her first day at university, when she did exactly what the handbook said and knocked on her tutor's door?

If we really think that parents are beginning to get "aggressive", imagine if they not only asked these tough questions but refused to be fobbed off by slick, reassuring answers. Suppose they pressed us to say what proportion of first-year teaching is done by low-paid, part-time lecturers or graduate students on casual contracts, and how much by permanent staff.

Let's say the answer about seminars assures them that we never have groups of more than eight (and outside Oxbridge, I doubt whether many universities can truthfully say that). Their next question should be how strongly managers are being pressured to increase the size of seminar groups because classes this small are not "financially viable". We all know that many universities are desperate to get bums on seats, preferably as many as possible in the same classroom. Most parents don't seem to know this. Why?

Before I give away too many of academe's dirty secrets, let me stress that most of this isn't our fault. If governments underfund universities for decades and vastly increase student numbers, no one should be surprised if academic standards fall: as lecturers' unions rightly pointed out during the recent dispute, you can't get quality education on the cheap. It's exactly the same with the National Health Service. Most university staff do their best, but we constantly have to do more and more with less and less.

So I encourage parents (and students) to probe, criticise and make a fuss if they want a good education. They should be specific: if they want to know what the teaching is really like, they should ask if shrewd students can get a 2.1 by swotting for the last four weeks of their final year. They should ask if marks cluster around the mean so that almost everyone gets a 2.1 or a 2.2, or is excellent work rewarded and poor work failed? And they shouldn't take the university's word for it: they should insist on seeing evidence; after all, that's what Quality Assurance Agency reviewers are constantly told to do. If they want a reality check from lecturers, they should say that they have heard that some departments are so obsessed with doing well in the next research assessment exercise that quality teaching is low on their agenda: is that the case here? They should pretend that they are Jeremy Paxman with an evasive politician or a barrister cross-examining a shifty witness: squeeze them so the truth seeps out.

If they do not get decent answers, then they should look at the big picture. Their daughter will get a top-class "product" if her lecturers are dynamic and committed and feel valued.

When university staff suffer from stress-related illnesses, find their work a tedious grind or lack job security, then students will get a poor deal.

It's not difficult to work this out. More parents should do so. It isn't just open days, either: if their son's second-year education starts to dip in quality, they should talk to him about the best way to get it put right.

As for us academics, we should know better than to label parents "aggressive" if they expect high standards. Most lecturers claim to welcome critical, confident students who know how to ask the right questions and work hard to find out the answers. We want them not to accept established wisdom, but to be fearless in asking for evidence and rational argument before they believe anything we say. So how come we expect their parents to be meek and docile and believe our marketing shtick unquestioningly? If asking uncomfortable questions is aggression, then let's have more of it - in universities and everywhere else.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies at Brighton University.

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