Your universities are like our high schools" was the verdict of a group of Eastern European undergraduates when questioned about the state of British higher education. During our conversation, they offered a series of complaints - lack of intellectual stimulation, the low expectations that tutors have of their students, the feeling that they are being treated like schoolchildren, to name just a few. Since I am all too familiar with these issues, I was surprised only by the intensity of their response to their educational experience.
The one complaint that did catch me unaware was when a Polish psychology student noted in passing that "they even give you marks for just being there". When I inquired what she meant, she informed me that in her discipline, it was quite common for students to be given marks just for attending seminars. Since that conversation, I have discussed her claim with colleagues from different institutions and can confirm that rewarding timekeeping has become one of the new, opportunistic practices adopted in higher education.
Awarding marks for timekeeping or bribing students with extra grades to come to seminars has no academic or pedagogic merit. It is driven by the imperative of holding on to students who are otherwise quite indifferent to their "learning experience".
One of the dirty secrets of British higher education is that a significant minority of undergraduates are not particularly interested in their courses. Some of them simply do not want to be anywhere in the proximity of a lecture hall or seminar room. For others, it is like school - they go through the motions and just hang in there until they get their degree. And, of course, some of them simply switch off and drop out.
It is the fear of losing students that has led many universities to launch initiatives to improve student attendance at tutorials. These initiatives are modelled on the experience of secondary education and rely on a combination of compulsion and bribery techniques.
In some cases, the fact that academics are giving students marks for simply showing up is obscured by their presenting it as a reward for participation and not just for attendance. But many students know that although the course outline informs them that 10 per cent of their final grade is for attendance and participation, they will get all the marks just for showing up and keeping their eyes open. Some courses do not bother to pretend that participation is expected: "10 per cent of your final grade is based on seminar attendance" informs the module guide for the course Personality and Conceptual and Historical Issues in Psychology at one Midland university. A similar point is emphasised by the guide to an English literature course, Writing and Self, offered by a Scottish university. It notes that "ATTENDANCE at both seminars and lectures is COMPULSORY". There is compensation for students willing to walk the extra mile - "10 per cent of the marks for the course are awarded for seminar attendance". And students who decide to sleep in face a penalty - "deductions for absence will always be made unless your tutor has been given prior notice of an adequate reason".
Serious creative energy has been devoted to devising schemes to reward timekeeping in higher education. At one London university, students taking the course Introduction to Creative Writing are told that they "will have the opportunity to achieve up to 11 bonus marks for seminar attendance and participation". This sounds like a fun way of playing the game. But there are clear rules that require students to clock on, and after each seminar they have to "complete, and submit to their seminar tutor, seminar response sheets".
Some course modules use penalties to enforce what they euphemistically characterise as "academic engagement" and threaten to deduct marks for non-attendance. Sadly, the engagement achieved through these gimmicks is anything but academic and threatens to turn seminar attendance into a caricature of itself.
The real problem with rewarding timekeeping is that it implicitly devalues the work and effort made by students who are genuinely interested in regarding the seminar room as a place of intellectual engagement rather than as a drop-in centre.
My Eastern European informants say that what irritates them more than anything else is when, in the middle of a seminar, they realise that it is only they and a couple of other people who have done the reading for the discussion. The attempt to accommodate the reluctant student through rewarding timekeeping does not benefit them. It reinforces casual and cynical attitudes towards academic work and threatens to turn the serious students off.