Charters setting out students’ and universities’ mutual obligations “infantilise” learners and break the traditional bonds of trust with their lecturers, a conference has heard.
Joanna Williams, senior lecturer in higher education and academic practice at the University of Kent, said that so-called partnership agreements were a sign of degree courses being “degraded”, from shared experiences of intellectual development to exercises in meeting minimum requirements for a qualification.
She was speaking at a colloquium on the marketisation of higher education at the University of West London that celebrated the work of Roger Brown, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University.
Dr Williams said that fear of litigation had contributed to the rise of student partnership agreements.
“This is a really important factor influencing the way universities behave towards students,” she said. “It’s a factor that has come increasingly to the fore with tuition fees.”
Dr Williams noted that in Canterbury Christ Church University’s charter, the vice-chancellor pledges that the institution will provide “high standards” of teaching, academic personal tutoring and timely feedback on written work. In return, the students’ union president pledges that students will attend classes and meetings, meet deadlines and “actively engage” with their course, including spending “sufficient regular time” in private study.
The consequence, she said, was to give students the impression that they would learn if they simply met a set list of requirements. “This can infantilise students and turn them into quite passive learners,” she said.
Dr Williams noted that there was no place for academics in such charters, with only the vice-chancellor speaking for the university. She argued that students learned best if lecturers urged them to take risks and even feel intellectually “uncomfortable”.
Charters “break down the informal relationship of trust that exists between individual academic and student; and that trust, for me, is a key requirement for learning at a higher level to take place,” she said.
Patrick Ainley, professor of training and education at the University of Greenwich, said that many students were now interested only in learning enough to pass. This was even the case in tutorials at the University of Oxford, he said, which were used by undergraduates “to pump their tutor for what was likely to be in examinations”.
But the conference also heard that greater competition for good careers and reduced job security meant that students would inevitably focus on employability. Paulo Bótas, a postdoctoral fellow in education studies at Liverpool Hope, suggested that marketisation had prompted a rise in emphasis on research over teaching. “There is almost no doubt teaching has become a commodity and teachers have become a disposable commodity in this environment,” he said.
Concluding the event, Professor Brown argued that marketisation in higher education actually pushed up fees and created other sources of waste such as spending on “marketing and branding, glitzy halls of residence…designed to attract punters”.
“Some competition leads to better use of resources, but too much undoes the benefits of increased competition in the first place. This, it seems to me, is the central and crucial irony of marketisation,” he said.