A student leader has challenged universities to redraw “unrepresentative” curricula and assessment methods, blaming them for the underperformance of students from less privileged backgrounds.
Sorana Vieru, the National Union of Students’ new vice-president (higher education), said there was a clear “structural problem” behind the underperformance of students who are from disadvantaged families or from ethnic minorities, or who have disabilities.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Ms Vieru said urging institutions to take decisive action to reflect their changing student bodies in their teaching and assessment methods would be her top priority.
“Higher education provision is moving so quickly, but when it comes to what education looks like and how we assess things, it hasn’t changed for centuries,” she said. “We still do the same things that universities did in the Middle Ages.”
Last month a study conducted for the Higher Education Funding Council for England found that students from disadvantaged socio-economic groups were less likely to complete their course, to get a good degree, or to be satisfied with their university experience. The results for ethnic minority and disabled students were similar.
Ms Vieru, who came to the UK from Romania to study as a teenager, argued that curricula are “unrepresentative” of the experiences of students from non-traditional backgrounds. The “white, male and stale” university environment in which women, and black women in particular, are underrepresented among the professoriate “must affect” what is taught, she said.
She also argued that traditional methods of assessment such as exams and essays “privileged people from certain backgrounds”, particularly the privately educated, and that getting a good mark often reflected “that you know how to play the game” rather than “the effort you have put in or the learning that has gone on”.
There should be greater emphasis on collaborative work between students and a shift from summative to formative assessment, Ms Vieru said, adding that fears about “dumbing down” were misplaced.
The key, she continued, was to end the idea of university teaching as being a relationship between “master and apprentice” and instead to give “equal value” to lecturers and students while recognising their differing roles and perspectives.
“It’s about collaborating with students on deciding what should be taught, so the shape and form and content of the curricula, and how they are assessed,” she said.
Ms Vieru, who is studying for a PhD in philosophy at the University of Bristol, acknowledged that students’ unions needed to do “a lot of work” to better engage with postgraduate students.
She also warned that the government’s “ideological” moves to scrap student maintenance grants and to allow universities that are identified as being better at teaching to charge higher tuition fees would “undo a lot of work around access”.