Part-timers are due full consideration

May 29, 1998

A recent report concluded that students on masters courses get a raw deal. They pay high fees, have to share lectures and seminars with undergraduates; have little supervision for their research; and end up with low-status degrees. In short, they are cash-cows for underfunded universities. In my experience, things are even worse for part-time masters students.

Last year I completed a part-time masters degree at a respected university. Poor administration meant that for every hour spent actually studying, a quarter must have been taken up with fruitless hassle. The logistics of the system were ludicrous and, for someone with a living to earn, expensive.

Consider the scheduling of lectures. We had been assured that the one-year course could be taken over two years part-time. In the first year, the core modules, "remedial" first-year course and necessary third-year introduction to theory would be covered, with an exam in May. The second year would be devoted to options (second or third-year courses with masters level seminars) and supervised progress towards a dissertation, to be completed by September. I suppose it was crazy to believe that this programme could be covered in "one or two days a week".

Still, it was a surprise to find that going to all of the recommended lectures plus the almost compulsory departmental seminar in the first term would have required journeys into central London on all five days of the working week. The suggestion of "getting another student to tape the lectures" seemed unrealistic, given that none of us knew each other and that some of the lecturers' voices were unlikely to reproduce well. There was no help for it: I and the other four students who worked cut most of the introductory lectures, skipped the seminar and tried to follow the reading lists. Perhaps it was just as good, but it did not feel just as good.

Undergraduates are charming young creatures, but largely allergic to print. Masters students are supposed to have their own, separate seminars. Part-time students could not fit in with the whimsical scheduling of seminars, so we were often lumped in with undergraduates. Either entranced by charm or conscious of the need to keep funding bums on funded course seats, some staff were reluctant to demand reports on readings of set texts. Not a few seminars resembled a bridge game in which all players pass: no contributions. I worked out once that I was paying Pounds 30 for an hour of conversation less focused than I could have had with my six-year-old for free. I went home.

It was clear that no one had considered the needs of part-timers in drafting the schedule. Why could not more of the lectures be on the same day? Why was the same course at a different time and day the following term? Schools keep to a time-table all year, why cannot universities? Why institute a tutorial system and then drop it?

Then there is the library. There are not enough books or library staff. You have to queue, maybe for 20 minutes, to take a book out. Then you queue again, also for 20 minutes, to return the book. It is an insane waste of time.

Underfunded universities have expanded their graduate programmes. Do the libraries therefore have more copies of required readings? You bet your sweet bippy they don't. They put crucial texts on the "short-loan" system, which means you take them out for four hours at a time. But part-time students can't come back every four hours. They have to work, or pick up children, or stay in for the gas man. See that clock ticking? That's the money I am not earning standing in this line.

And where are the books? The teaching staff swore that the legal maximum of five photocopies of each text is placed in the library at the beginning of each year. The library staff could generally locate a couple on the computer. The odds that any of those was complete and legible were long. OK, buy the book I but some are out of print. Back to that line.

Is waiting in line for the photocopier really developing research skills? Perhaps it would be just too easy for the university to pay copyright fees and make photocopied, bound folders to sell to students. Students already pay a fortune creating illegally copied folders - and they pay it to the university copy machines.

Of course, there is more than money at stake. Of course, some of the teaching was brilliant and the material fascinating. My supervisor was conscientious and dedicated. But some things hurt. Why should it take eight months and several requests to get marks for an exam? Why did each of the five of us have one of our 12 essays lost by a teacher? Isn't that more than careless? Isn't it callous?

Higher education needs more funding, but not by short-changing struggling individuals on their hard-won fees. Universities ought to give part-time students full-time consideration.

Victoria Neumark is a masters student in anthropology at University College London.

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