Teaching matters: Credit where it's due

November 9, 2007

Far from being self-interested consumers, today's students engage with and shape a dynamically evolving academe, David Watson writes in the first of a series examining issues from the teaching front line. In so far as mass higher education in the UK has been a success, this is significantly down to our students. The policy framework has contributed (often uneasily), the institutions and their staff have coped remarkably with the consequences of unfunded expansion, but on the key indicators - of matriculation, of retention and of graduate employment - the responsibility is theirs.

This generation of students works extraordinarily hard, both to achieve academically well as to cover their living costs. They care as strongly as any of their predecessors about issues of justice and fairness, although they are much more likely to express these values in terms of environmental sustainability and global responsibility than through party politics. Above all, they know that the world does not owe them a living, as many felt it did when only about 10 per cent of each age cohort enjoyed a higher education.

Our students have also moulded the system in striking ways. This is partly about choice of subjects, where the reports have underlined the difficulties that providers have faced (with more success in recent years) in adjusting to the popularity and unpopularity of certain courses. The media studies vogue, in an ironic way, is a demand-led phenomenon. It is ironic because one of the chief charges from the political-industrial complex is that higher education does not respond to demand (there are no such "moral panics" about law graduates not working in the law). For example, students have played a major role in ensuring that higher education can serve the vitally important service and creative economies on which we now depend.

Student choice is also about mode of study, where the sectoral supertanker has to deal with rapid growth in demand for part-time undergraduate and full-time postgraduate courses. It is about brands, where only in relation to demand from the supply-led public services do foundation degrees seem to have high-volume future prospects.

Finally, it is about choice of institutions. "Hard to reach" groups remain concentrated in one particular part of the sector, and contrary to the propaganda of the Sutton Trust, their choices are not necessarily irrational. To quote the Teaching and Learning Programme's project on the Social and Organisational Mediation of University Learning, "The amount of learning is not related to 'quality' rankings of institutions (you won't necessarily learn more if you go to a posh place)."

There are other pedagogical implications. Inside the institutions we have plenty of nostalgic and ideologically loaded analysis of what new and graduating students can't do; there's precious little account taken of what today's students can do that many of their predecessors (and at least some of their teachers) could not. Most of this has to do with information and communication technology and with the learning styles related to what American academic Jason Frand memorably calls "the information-age mindset" in his seminal paper of 2000 ( The Information-Age Mindset ). We probably won't have real transformation here until the 'screenagers' themselves get to teach (and that won't be very long).

Many institutions, course teams and individual teachers have responded positively to these elements of co-production. For them, higher education is, as it always was at its best, a conversation between more and less experienced learners. The best teachers are those who can deal with the necessarily changing vocabulary, style and content of the exchange.

Others have reacted with condescension, or even hostility. Here the die was cast by Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1988), with its view of a self-serving, introverted generation: "Students these days are pleasant, friendly and if not great-souled, at least not particularly mean-spirited. Their primary preoccupation is themselves, understood in the narrowest sense." In many English hands (Frank Furedi springs to mind), this condescension descends into aggression as teachers take out their disappointment with many aspects of their current condition on those they are supposed to serve.

Such academic dystopianism can masquerade as a principled critique of student instrumentalism, based on the suggestion that students have shifted from being members of an academic community to simple consumers of an academic product. Other straw men are also wheeled out - such as modular course design (which, like any other framework for the curriculum, can be either well or poorly designed and executed). Students certainly know that credentialism counts: it is one of the prices of a larger, fairer system. It is also a major reason for the growth in masters degrees in the applied area. In a world in which a third of each cohort of new workforce entrants are graduates, the search for further personal differentiation makes sense.

But today's students also know that they are not in the business of simply purchasing a degree. Look at all of the evidence from student surveys. What do they want the "new" fee income spent on? More and better library and computing resources and staff development in support of teaching. What do they most value in the teaching relationship? Old-fashioned formative feedback on how they are doing.

Working in higher education - as a student as well as a member of staff - implies a psychological contract, or a "deal". Responsibilities come hand in hand with consumerist rights and entitlements. One such responsibility is the submission to the discipline of assessment. Another is a commitment to the conventions of academic discourse. Expecting better service is in no way corrosive of these enduring values.

What is often needed by teachers and institutions is a greater exercise of the historical and sociological imagination. As higher education expands, many of its traditional, non-academic screening mechanisms are falling away. Our student body will look more like our society at large, with its strengths and weaknesses. Higher education will no longer look like British philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott's "gift of an interval".

The Americans have a more attractive term for what we call "retention". They call it "persistence". The persistence of our students, often in difficult circumstances, is remarkable. My colleague Ron Barnett has written about this eloquently in his new book, A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty (Open University Press). What is certain is that the will to learn involves a progressive partnership with those who try to teach.

Sir David Watson is professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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