The verdict: universities are failing too few people

DIUS student juries are concerned about pass marks, class size and staff numbers, says Rebecca Attwood

April 17, 2008

Universities "don't fail enough people" and are setting pass marks too low, panels set up by the Government to gauge student opinion have heard.

Events held in four English cities as part of a plan to give students a say in Government have revealed concerns about academic standards and student-to-staff ratios.

Government expansion targets were blamed for stretching university budgets and for large class sizes, reports of the events released by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills show.

"One of the downsides of the Government trying to up the numbers in higher education is that universities don't fail enough people any more," according to one juror.

"There are students who don't even know how to use the library by their third year. This kind of approach will only be counterproductive in the long run, because it'll devalue degrees," the juror added.

Another said: "Assessment is not tough enough: 40 per cent to pass is too low."

Students were asked to give their verdict on university life at "student juries" held in London, Manchester, Bristol and Sheffield.

The results will help inform the work of the new National Student Forum, set up by DIUS in January.

Students said that large class sizes could leave them feeling isolated and anonymous.

Some had the impression that institutions' heavy focus on research meant that leading researchers were not teaching and support for learning was inadequate.

"Research-oriented faculty spend most of their time sourcing funding to buy time out from teaching, leaving most of the teaching load to ... inexperienced staff," said one.

Other jurors felt that personal tutors were not providing enough support for students.

One student said that tutors "should be more involved with their students and be more aware of how they are progressing with their studies. There should be meetings every two weeks or every month, to keep in touch and up to date with what is going on in a student's life."

"Perhaps you could have a personal pastoral support for students as well as an academic one. Academics are too busy to provide this kind of support, so it would be better if it were someone else," another suggested.

For international students, lecturers' attitudes towards them were a key concern.

Many had had positive experiences. "My lecturers have been very sensitive to foreign students like me by drawing on examples more culturally relevant to me," one said.

However, other foreign students felt patronised. "Some lecturers make me feel like I'm slowing things down, so I don't ask questions," another student told the jury.

Juries also heard concerns about assessment methods and deadlines. Some students felt assessment did not properly represent their progress.

"Sometimes assessments can make a mockery of the length of courses and the sustained effort of students throughout a course. Grading on seminar performance and contribution could be a better method of assessment to adopt in the future," according to one.

Study resources, especially hard copies of textbooks, were sometimes inadequate, it was reported. Others said feedback on work was sparse.

"We need a national service-level agreement. Why don't universities have to sign a contract to say what they will or have to do for us?" one student asked.

The importance of good communication between academics and departments was also highlighted.

"I am joint honours and I often have lots of essays due on the same day for my different departments. The problem is more about internal communication between academics and departments than it is about the workload itself," one student said.

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