The quest is to produce independent learners

September 13, 2002

Universities must wake up to the challenge from rival sources of higher education, writes Peter Coaldrake

Over the past two decades, in almost all Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, government policy, student demand and professional pressures have combined to push for greater participation in higher education and for wider access by more students from more diverse social and economic backgrounds.

To some academics, this has meant a lowering of standards and imposition of unreasonable pressures for change as students enter universities inadequately prepared or with narrow vocational expectations. Further, many students now pay a share of the cost of their tuition, leading pessimists to see an inevitable consumerist element entering higher education and a tendency for management to pander to student demands to attract money.

Such negative perceptions are rarely grounded in solid evidence despite formal investigations such as the Australian senate inquiry sparked by concerns about "soft marking" of fee-paying students. Nevertheless, student expectations of universities have changed markedly in both degree and kind, and mass higher education will inevitably lead to some changes in the relationships between universities and students. But how should universities deal with these changes?

The most obvious place to start is to recognise the legitimate "consumer" rights of students, many of whom are incurring significant costs in pursuing higher education. The experience in several countries of ombudsmen or other formalised complaints mechanisms and the potential of student litigation is driving home the point that universities must be more professional in their dealings with students, including through the codification of policies and procedures previously unavailable in an explicit form.

Universities also expose themselves to heightened expectations and potential for student dissatisfaction or litigation if their marketing rhetoric becomes too far removed from reality.

There is, however, a growing number of non-traditional providers of higher education specialising in service and convenience, and it is not clear that traditional universities can match them in these areas.

And students, or at least student leaders, do not subscribe to the view that they are consumers whose main expectations revolve around amenities. While we should always be wary of generalising about "what students want" when the student body encompasses such a wide range of perspectives, the student leaders who participated in two recent OECD conferences on this subject were unanimous in their view. They argued that student consultation in academic matters is important and that the student body should participate in the university - but challenging curricula, rigour and substance should not be traded off in the interests of improving student satisfaction.

A more sophisticated understanding is needed of the realities of student life, needs and expectations. Expectations are not set in stone - they are shaped by experience, particularly the experience of first-time study. Yet it is here that mass higher education often is furthest removed from student life. First-year classes are often crowded and taught by casual staff, and the curriculum is rarely tailored to specific learning needs or to engage and challenge.

Perhaps some view the first year as a test of stamina, with the real higher education experience reserved for those who make it through. To do otherwise would surely be hand-holding and antithetical to our expectations that students should become independent learners. But do we not have an ethical, if not a legal, obligation to those students whom we have admitted to our universities?

Richard J. Light of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University recently wrote about his experience dealing with students and educators over many years and cited one dean as saying that his job was to recruit the best students and get out of their way. Light argued that colleges and universities should not just get out of the way and that it should be an obligation to provide challenging experiences that engage students in the life of the university and the wider world and that stretch their expectations of university study. We should be able to distinguish this task from hand-holding or spoon-feeding.

Tackling this problem in a systematic way is not easy and will require considerable energy and investment. But it represents the best response to student expectations - taking "student centredness" from feel-good rhetoric to a driver of concrete strategies for discharging equally two obligations: to maintain high standards and rigour, and to help students to become independent learners.

Peter Coaldrake is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland and director of the study Responding to Student Expectations , available from OECD, 2 rue André-Pascal, 75775 Paris Cedex 16, France.

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