I just won't wear that uniformity

December 1, 2006

As universities become more like schools, how long until a national curriculum is foisted on us? asks Frank Furedi

From time to time, the university becomes the focus of public concern. Usually someone in the media discovers that there is a scandal waiting to erupt - plagiarism, student hardship, grade inflation - and demands to know what the world is coming to. Unfortunately, the criticisms are mounted in the language of the angry consumer and rarely touch on matters integral to an academic education.

One of the favourite charges is that students, and by definition their parents, are not getting value for money. One often hears revelations about the relatively little time that students spend sitting in seminar rooms and lecture halls. Sometimes such concerns are justified. But frequently the implicit premise of these critics is that a university should adopt the practices of a primary school, where teachers keep a constant eye on their young charges to ensure that they are always occupied and don't get into trouble. From this perspective, value for money means 40 hours of lectures and seminars with supervision of homework thrown in as an extra.

Recently, I was subjected to a barrage of invective when I acknowledged that my sociology students had on average eight hours' contact time each week. What's interesting is that many journalists and parents who are shocked by these revelations went to university themselves. If they cast their minds back, they will recall that their diaries were not chock-a-block with lectures and seminars. Indeed, not so long ago attendance at lectures and seminars was not deemed compulsory and the monitoring of attendance was unknown.

Many commentators argue that the reason why there is a growing interest in how students spend their time is the increasing cost of higher education.

It is claimed that an awareness of cost has encouraged parents and students to ask: are we getting our money's worth? At first sight this interpretation of developments makes sense. We hear about students reminding lecturers that they pay their salaries and demanding a better service.

But there is a far more important and potentially more insidious development. Increasingly, we expect universities to adopt the ethos and practices of the school. In our highly centralised and regulated world, we find it impossible to imagine that young people can function unless their life is constantly supervised. That is why universities have institutionalised the monitoring of attendance and why some universities have copied the idea of a parent-school contract.

The relative autonomy of university life is still something of an anomaly in our highly regulated institutional environment. It is true that the systematic auditing of the university has encouraged the bureaucratisation of higher education with negative consequences for the quality of academic life. But we still possess a degree of control over the way we teach and the content of our coursework. It is still often possible for lecturers to play to their strengths and link their teaching to their research interests.

As matters stand, neither coursework nor degrees are standardised. But for how long? Recently there was an outcry when a Higher Education Policy Institute survey showed that student work rates were variable across disciplines and universities. It appears that many politicians and officials would like to alter this. According to their world-view, everything should be standardised, which is another name for a university national curriculum. That is one proposal to which we cannot acquiesce.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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