Paying for a course doesn't mean students can buy a degree

To maintain our high standards of education, we must enforce the most elemental requirement: attendance. Adrian Quinn writes

July 29, 2010

Every year there comes an awkward moment when I meet a student for the first time. It's not at induction, but at the final exam. I make a point of learning the names of all my students and I often know where they come from, so it's not a mistake. These students have presented themselves to be assessed for a module in which they did not take part.

Britain has been a pioneer in the development of distance-learning programmes leading to credible qualifications, but that's not the kind of teaching I have so far been involved in.

Speaking at the Labour Party conference a few years ago, former prime minister Gordon Brown said that Britain "has to be number one for standards in education. We have got to make sure that every young person's talent and potential is challenged and that we get the best out of people." But where British universities are keen to monitor all aspects of the teaching and assessment of students, those same institutions often shy away from enforcing the most elemental requirement: attendance.

A real issue for teachers in a now expanded higher education sector is: how do we get the best out of a young person who shows contempt for the learning process? Is the permissive impulse a real barrier to Britain becoming number one?

If one tries to explain the success of that other Scots-born Gordon (TV chef Gordon Ramsay), it comes down to more than just his signature profanity, it's his attitude to standards. His message is anti-permissive and when he's presented with poor work, he shouts: "Not good enough!" When registering at university, students are made aware of their learning obligations and that formal contact time is a compulsory part of the experience of being at university.

But there is a counter-argument that says, cynically, that higher education is simply a service and if students choose to pay for it, they can also choose not to profit from that service. Except that they do. A degree certificate from a British university does just that: it certifies that the holder has followed a course of study leading to a given qualification. If we misrepresent any part of the learning process, we're in trouble in the long term. In a permissive learning culture, it's not a great leap from purchasing tuition to purchasing a degree. A veteran colleague explains that driving lessons are also a service, but paying for them in no way buys you a driving licence. Standards for the road are linked to public safety and the public interest. It's a good and honest model.

Employability is, quite properly, an important part of the agenda for the higher education sector. Employers have to know if the actual standards of British universities match the often bullish statements they issue about their standards. In a recent and worrying pattern of behaviour, the most disaffected students miss the very first lecture of the term. I liken this to missing the first day at a new job and I ask students - all of them - to be aware of the message that their behaviour sends out about themselves.

I served on an interview panel early in my career where the applicant, an experienced lecturer, said that three years at university can prepare a young person for the real world, or they can unprepare them. Degrees in the arts, sciences and humanities prepare the best students by showing them that our actions, like disregard for the environment, have consequences. Inaction also has consequences. This must be among the most valuable of all learning outcomes, and tutors spend their working lives developing material to communicate these values to students. It seems counter-intuitive to invest hundreds of hours preparing and delivering these lessons only to waive the requirement to attend them.

Allowing a student who is serially absent to pass without sanction to the assessment stage may be bureaucratically expedient, but it is pedagogically unsound. It is also professionally corrupting. But what if the higher education sector were to enforce attendance, and thus standards? Good students would surely thank us and poor students would hate us. And that we can live with.

The permissive impulse runs deep. But the link between standards, attendance and credibility should be obvious to us. And ultimately our concern should be whether a British degree represents a gold standard, or a meaningless one.

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