NUS vice-president blames university teaching for struggles of poorer students

Sorana Vieru says exams and essays 'privilege' more advantaged students, calls for changes to 'Middle Ages' format

August 8, 2015
Sorana Vieru, National Union of Students
Source: Will Bunce/NUS
Sorana Vieru: the key is to end the ‘master and apprentice’ style of teaching

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”.

chris.havergal@tesglobal.com

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Sector ‘stuck in the Middle Ages’

Reader's comments (6)

"traditional methods of assessment such as exams and essays “privileged people from certain backgrounds”, particularly the privately educated" This seems to display very little awareness of causation. It's not the exams that privilege these people - they are already privileged and that's merely reflected in their exam performance. Moreover, I assume that if universities were to make more use of other forms of assessment, private schools would spend more time preparing their students for these forms of assessment too, so the problem would still persist.
Whilst not wishing to sound like I am from the "Middle Ages", as an Engineering academic if I do not have more knowledge and experience than my students, they really are wasting their money in this age of fees. Moreover, the content of a degree program reflects both employer and professional body requirements. Words fail me on how to respond to sentences such as “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,” assuming that we want our students exposed to rigorous courses that will equip them well for life rather than keep them in their comfort zone. Students should be unhappy if all we ever do is reflect back "What do you think?" as I would be if I consulted a lawyer who one presumes has more legal expertise. That is assuming that as academics we consider ourselves as professionals.
<i>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.</i> I've found that many students (not all) aren't that keen on collaborative work - especially if they feel there is a free loader in the group; working out mark allocation, while still having collaborative elements is a challenge. It's also difficult at times to persuade students to do formative assessments. While, in principle, I don't disagree with her views "“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." - you have to get the balance between what students think they may need & what I know they do need. I'd rather get poor unit feedback & students returning to say "Now I know why you made me do xxx" than good unit feedback & students later saying "I liked it - but I've not used it since ..."
The teacher-student relationship is fundamentally unequal when we look at the knowledge imbalance in it. What can be achieved is a relationship based on mutual respect and a recognition of the clear roles that the student and teacher have in that relationship. This is what the NUS should be seeking to achieve. As for postgraduate students, the NUS has been an abject failure at engaging with postgraduates and certainly needs to do a 'lot of work' to have any meaningful impact on that community, which is facing quite a lot of fragmentation between taught and research students and between doctoral students in Centres for Doctoral Training and those outside these schemes.
" give “equal value” to lecturers and students" could mean that both are afford equal respect. Lecturers need to know more about their students, their values and educational purposes. I assume students welcome expert guidance and access to knowledge. But, it is worth reflecting on 'Whose knowledge?"
What kind of rubbish is this? We are in an age where alternative methods of assessment are riddled with problems - this year I had to pass an essay submitted by a student who had "written" it with the assistance of a published author on the subject. The institutions hands were tied. The students grades in exams were 3rd rate the essay was high first... I am sure many others have encountered similar discrepancies. I have to be convinced that a successful MA student could actually speak one word of English. Exams are the one time students have the chance to show what the really know. Some students that struggle with essay writing actually benefit from the opportunity to write without the formal constraints - more than one student from what could be regarded as a disadvantaged background has made that comment. Before I receive comments about my privileged position I should perhaps point out I failed the 11 +, left school at the age of 15 without any qualifications, and have a recognised learning disability. Exams are an essential part of the assessment process, if someone is motivated and smart enough they'll negotiate the hurdle... if they have a disability they'll get help,

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