Under-40s bemoan spoon-fed students

September 16, 2004

Today's students need much more spoon-feeding than previous generations of undergraduates, the first-ever survey of the country's young academics, conducted for The Times Higher , has found.

Almost four in five academics aged under 40 say that students expect far more help than they did when they were students, according to the survey of more than 300 lecturers. This view was held across all disciplines, with little variation according to age or seniority.

Academics aged under 40 believe their careers will benefit little from the introduction of top-up fees and the drive to expand student numbers.

Yet despite qualms about over-dependent students, short-term contracts for researchers and reservations about the value of fees, today's young academics still seem content with university life. Two-thirds would be happy for their children to follow an academic career. And the survey found that the vast majority of lecturers are not actively seeking jobs outside academe.

Responding to the survey, the Association of University Teachers said that students were more demanding because of fees and the drive to enrol from a wider range of backgrounds.

Jonathan Whitehead, head of public affairs at the AUT, said: "It's something we've been seeing for a long time. As students are treated more as customers, they are going to be more demanding."

But he said lecturers were frustrated that there had been no accompanying increase in resources: "They want to give a higher level of education but are usually on the sharp end of student complaints through no fault of their own."

Petra Boynton, a lecturer at University College London, said: "More (students) are being encouraged to go to university, and a lot more pastoral care and tuition is needed. It's not that they aren't bright, they just need a bit more help to get up to speed."

The majority of young academics believe that the Government's 50 per cent participation target will not lead to career opportunities, while there is widespread reluctance to accept short-term contracts as part of an academic career. Eighty-five per cent reject short-term contracts as the "only practical way" of organising teaching and research.

Variable tuition fees, to be introduced in England from 2006, are universally unpopular, at least in terms of assisting lecturers in their work. Only 23 per cent thought the income would equip them to perform better, compared with 60 per cent who disagreed.

Mr Whitehead said: "There's a high level of cynicism in the sector about promises of extra funding delivering improvements in the fabric of universities and teaching resources, mainly because whenever there have been promises, our members have never felt it trickle down and affect their lives."

Adrian Newton, a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University, said that it was uncertain how top-up fees money would benefit individual departments.

He said: "Some (money) might come to the department and increase our resources. But it depends on how universities use the money."

Despite their concerns, today's under-40 academics would still encourage their children to enter academic life. Only 30 per cent would advise their son or daughter against an academic career.

Just one in seven is actively considering a job outside the sector, compared with 85 per cent who are committed to universities. Some 62 per cent denied being in pursuit of a non-university career move.

The telephone poll of more than 300 academics aged 40 or under was conducted for The Times Higher by ICM Research.


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