Tutors despair over students

March 30, 2007

Academics face fine balancing act in supporting ill-equipped students while upholding standards, says Phil Baty.

Evidence of the deep professional conflicts faced by academics supporting students they believe are ill-equipped for degree-level study is revealed in an investigation by The Times Higher .

Academics have complained that they are regularly torn between the desire to help struggling students, keeping them on courses with only limited resources, and the wish to maintain academic standards.

A frank internal online discussion by academics at the University of Central Lancashire on the future strategic direction of the business school, leaked to The Times Higher , reveals the daily frustrations faced by lecturers.

Staff complain that many students have poor basic skills and are in need of remedial help.

One academic said: "We give them chance after chance because we don't want to lose them... we need to recruit better students, not simply more."

Another said: "And what are we doing it for anyway? The good of the students? We all know that this process is to maintain a certain level of income."

The university said that the comments were not representative of the views of all staff.

In a separate development, a professor at Bournemouth University told The Times Higher this week that he had resigned in protest after his decision to fail 13 students on his archaeology course - ratified by a second marker and agreed by the exam board - was overruled by his head of department after a re-marking.

Paul Buckland, professor of environmental archaeology, said that although he believed in open access - something that Bournemouth does well, he added - there were some students who did not work hard enough or who did not have the ability.

"To pass these students is an insult to all those students who have worked hard for their degrees, often in very difficult circumstances," he said.

The university said that it had been correct to re-mark the scripts because there had been concerns about the second marking.

In an article in the Oxford Magazine this week, Bruce Charlton, a reader in psychiatry at Newcastle University, complained of a "massive decline in teaching quality" as his final-year class size had risen from 23 to 123 in the past decade.

A study late last year by Ian McNay, emeritus professor at Greenwich University and editor of the monograph Higher Education and the Human Good , found that 86 per cent of academics agreed that funding pressures "led to admission of weaker students".

Speaking to The Times Higher this week, Professor McNay said: "Student numbers have trebled while the cost of processing people through higher education has halved.

"We are now at the point where we are stretching beyond our capabilities.

There have always been people warning that the system will break down, and now the cracks are clearly visible."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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