Today's students get a raw deal and they know it

February 24, 2006

Boris Johnson learnt two things when he ran for rector. The first: being English and Tory has its disadvantages. And the second?

In the course of an inglorious campaign to become lord rector of Edinburgh University, I was frequently asked why on earth I was putting myself up.

"It's because I want to learn at first hand from students and staff," I said pompously. My contention was that the experience would be thoroughly useful for me in my capacity as Shadow Higher Education Minister.

Well, in the end the students and staff did indeed teach me a hell of a lesson: that it is a risk to present yourself for election in a Scottish university when you are (a) English, (b) Tory and (c) broadly in favour of top-up fees.JI was duly beaten.

But I did learn other things about the modern student experience, and the most startling was serious dissatisfaction with teaching.

At one stage, I asked a lecture theatre of students how many felt they were not being well taught. I was amazed by the forest of hands that went up and by the vehemence of the complaints. Some said that they received barely an hour's instruction a week and even then it might be in the company of 100 others.

I thought back to my time at Oxford University and the way some of the most eminent men and women in their fields would consecrate two hours a week, per student, for one-on-one tutorials. Far from feeling undertaught, I remember the sense of relief when a tutorial was cancelled and my pathetic underpreparation remained unexposed.

And yet nowadays students across the country seem to feel neglected and - not to put too fine a point on it - cheated. At Sussex University, English students have complained that their core course, the novel, is taught with a two-hour lecture given to an audience of 300 - and not a seminar to be had.

Is it true? I asked Kat Fletcher, the president of the National Union of Students. Was under-teaching really one of the big complaints of her members? It certainly was, she said.

So I put the problem to a highly intelligent and energetic vice-chancellor.

What could we do about the increasing sense among students that they were getting a raw deal, without enough real contact with their teachers?

At first, the vice-chancellor gave a wonderfully plausible answer, all about how methods of instruction had changed. So much more was to be found on the internet. Google had transformed methods of instruction. It was far easier to leave students to research subjects themselves.

I was nodding along to all this when it suddenly hit me that this answer was verging on complete codswallop.

No, frankly, the web is not a substitute for tuition; and if you think about the process of learning, and the clear dissatisfaction of the students, you can see why not.

It is a feature of human psychology that we depend on other people to regulate our emotional thermostat, to give us the little pipette drops of praise or blame that keep us going through the day. And that, among other things, is the function of the teacher: to give us that personal response to our own efforts that makes us yearn to do better, to please, to show this revered figure that we are ourselves capable of understanding the subject and, perhaps, even of original thought.

It is human contact, in other words, that gives students inspiration, and no wonder the current cohort sometimes feels underinspired. The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.

A university, Cardinal Newman said, is a great centre of pilgrimage and throng in which the student makes use of the ancient method of oral instruction, of present communication between man and man. Well, the ancient method of oral instruction has suffered badly in recent years.

We all know what has happened to teacher-student ratios, and we all know why. A large part of the problem these days is that faculties are so desperate for funding that academics are forced to spend their days churning out papers to meet research assessment exercise criteria - and the result is that they have too little time for teaching.

And a large part of the answer, obviously, is to plough a lot more cash into academic salaries and into universities generally.

Which is why I meekly suggested to the students of Edinburgh that they might consider supporting the principle that the beneficiaries of higher education should make more of a contribution... And a fat lot of good it did me.

Boris Johnson is Shadow Minister for Higher Education.

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