Teaching poll: 'Entry grades are worse, so we've got to get better'

May 23, 2003

Academics are having to change their teaching practices in the face of a broader range of students and a fear that easier entry standards lead to a greater wastage rate. They are also struggling with increased red tape, a THES/ICM nationwide survey has found. David Jobbins and Pat Leon report

OVERVIEW

  • Almost three-quarters support mandatory professional training
  • Students are less ready for a university course - 67 per cent
  • Easier entry encourages "dumbing down", according to 58 per cent
  • There is deep division over admissions policies that favour state-school students

Faced with increased numbers and a perception that incoming students are not as well prepared for university study as they used to be, a clear majority (74 per cent) of academics believe ongoing professional training should be a condition of employment and promotion. Only 21 per cent disagreed.

Medics and education lecturers were notably more convinced than other disciplines. Otherwise, there was little or no variation according to seniority or discipline. New universities were more markedly behind the proposal, with 44 per cent in strong agreement compared with 31 per cent in the older universities.

Most academics (77 per cent) said they had to adapt their teaching techniques in response to an increasingly diverse student population, a view held most strongly among senior staff. Some 90 per cent of readers and 80 per cent of professors reported having to change. These two groups were the most resistant to easing entry standards and most inclined to say students were less prepared for higher education than they were formerly.

They were also the least likely to have had professional training to help them to cope.

While the government's higher education white paper heralded new national professional standards for teaching to be agreed by 2004-05 that would describe the "competencies" required of all teaching staff, continuing professional development is largely voluntary. New teaching staff are generally expected to attend university-run courses in latest techniques and pedagogical thinking.

Across the faculties, medicine appears to have seen least change in teaching practices. Fewer than half (49 per cent) of those surveyed agreed they had changed, compared with nearly four-fifths (87 per cent) of scientists.

Changes in the school curriculum have clearly had an impact on the academics questioned. They felt decisively that students were less well prepared for university study than in the past. Only 17 per cent felt the level of preparation was higher, while 67 per cent disagreed that it was and 16 per cent did not know. Scientists were the most certain (39 per cent strongly disagreed that students were better prepared) followed by business studies academics (37 per cent). Staff at new universities were more tolerant of this perceived shift compared with their counterparts at older universities, as were women.

A majority (58 per cent against 33 per cent) were convinced that easier university entry encouraged dumbing down and led to students dropping out.

Academics questioned were evenly split on the merits of positive discrimination in the admission of students from state schools. Some 39 per cent approved of universities admitting state school students on lower grades at the expense of independent school students with higher grades, compared with 37 per cent who disapproved. But the high proportion of "don't knows" - 24 per cent - indicates that the argument is still far from over despite the defusing of the University of Bristol case.

Disquiet with any policy that selectively lowers entry grades was most marked among the senior grades of readers (39 against 32 per cent) and professors (45 compared with 38 per cent) than among lecturers (38 per cent approved against 34 per cent who did not) and senior lecturers (42 per cent in favour and 35 per cent against). Across faculties, disapproval was far stronger in engineering and sciences (47 per cent) than in the arts and social sciences (33.5 per cent) and least evident in education (24 per cent).

After education, medicine and the social sciences had the most liberal attitude to this form of social engineering, with 44 per cent approving of state-school admissions on lower grades. In one of the few cases in the survey of significant regional variations, Scottish responses were markedly hostile (54 per cent), with the (small) sample from Northern Ireland expressing total opposition.

Soaring student numbers and larger classes have been reflected in overall increases in student-to- staff ratios. While most of those questioned (71 per cent) thought students were being short-changed in terms of face-to-face contact, the feeling was slightly stronger among junior staff (74 per cent of lecturers and 73 per cent of senior lecturers). More than half the medics and social scientists strongly agreed, compared with a little over a third of engineers and educationists.

Whatever their qualms about the health of the system, academics were still prepared to encourage students to consider a university career - 53 per cent said they would do so against 38 per cent who said they would not.

Lecturers in new universities were more positive than their counterparts in the old universities.

THE PROFESSION

  • Drop research? No thanks, say 87 per cent
  • More than a quarter spend more than half their time on admin
  • Equally split over positive discrimination

Academics regard their main professional activities as teaching and research. But the survey reveals administration is biting deep into their working lives, almost irrespective of their seniority or discipline.

Research occupies a surprisingly minor part of the average university lecturer's schedule - three-quarters of the respondents reported spending less than 30 per cent of their time engaged in it, while 6 per cent spent more than half their time on research.

Academics in post-1992 universities had a lighter research load than those in old universities. Arts lecturers formed the largest proportion (46 per cent) with the lightest research commitment - 10 per cent or less of their time.

But any suggestion that most academics should give up cutting-edge research in an era of mass education was emphatically rejected: 87 per cent disagreed with the proposition compared with 9 per cent who supported it.

The force of the opposition was remarkable, with 70 per cent overall disagreeing strongly. So was the uniformity across seniority - 91 per cent of lecturers strongly disagreed, and professors trailed only just behind with 89 per cent. In old universities 75 per cent strongly disagreed while in the new, 59 per cent did.

When questioned about teaching loads, 84 per cent reported spending up to half their time on teaching duties, with professors devoting less time (43 per cent under 20 per cent of their time). There was no significant difference between old and new universities, and the spread across disciplines was fairly even, only social sciences and education stood out with 35 per cent and 32 per cent respectively spending between 31 per cent and 40 per cent of their time teaching.

Red tape dominated what academics would regard as their primary functions.

Overall, per cent spent more than half their time on administration, with almost two-thirds at 31 per cent or more. Professors claimed the heaviest paperwork burden, with 37 per cent spending more than half their working week struggling with bureaucracy. Staff at new universities had marginally higher administrative loads.

STUDENTS

  • Most say students are less well prepared for higher education now
  • Term-time working harms students' work, say 77 per cent
  • Students value job prospects over pursuit of knowledge - 81 per cent

The prospect of students providing formal feedback on teaching quality could be expected to fill many academics with dismay. The survey, however, showed that more than half the respondents (51 per cent) felt feedback was a "reliable" indicator, compared with 43 per cent who did not.

Educationists were most enthusiastic at 63 per cent and business the least at 48 per cent. The white paper called on institutions to ensure they were putting in place their own internal system for securing student feedback, but a national annual student survey explicitly covering teaching quality, expected in autumn 2003, has hit problems.

Few academics said they thought students pursued knowledge for its own sake, with 81 per cent accepting job prospects were a greater imperative, leaving 12 per cent with confidence in the pursuit of knowledge, mainly in science, medicine and arts faculties.

Pastoral care for students is seen as an integral part of a university lecturer's role, according to three in five respondents. Professors were more likely to disagree with the statement that pastoral care was neglected - some 66 per cent, compared with 54 per cent of lecturers. Women emerged as slightly more caring than men, with 63 per cent believing pastoral care was not neglected, compared with 58 per cent of men. But women were less keen than men on allowing students access to tutors outside regular hours, with 63 per cent disagreeing that this should be acceptable, compared with 58 per cent of men.

Educationists were most likely to think lecturers should take more of a pastoral role, with 61 per cent seeing this aspect as neglected, compared with 31 per cent of scientists and engineers. Across all subjects, 59 per cent felt that they did not neglect pastoral duties, while 37 per cent thought they did. Half the educationists believed students should have access to tutors outside regular hours, while social scientists and business studies staff were less keen, with 67 per cent disagreeing that it is a student entitlement.

The effect of students taking term-time employment was widely recognised.

Overall, 76 per cent were convinced it had a negative effect against 17 per cent who disagreed. This concern was lower in medicine and education, where integration with the workplace has been the norm.

ICM Research conducted telephone interviews with a representative sample of 500 academics, selected at random, across the United Kingdom, in March 2003.

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