What do we want? “A simpler system with students at the centre.”
And how are we going to achieve this? “Improve teaching quality, open up the higher education sector and drive value for money.”
This is what the government Green Paper on higher education suggests and encourages British universities to aspire to. Current debates in the higher education sector are complex and wide-ranging: from fees to employability, from free speech to student feedback. These are all contentious issues, and it’s virtually impossible to establish a one-size-fits-all model, but they’re also all worthy of discussion, debate and challenge.
I want to talk about one of the most recent developments in these discussions:
Should students have a say in their course content?
As much as we like to challenge the idea of students as consumers, arguing that they are “learners” and that universities are not just “service providers”, education is progressively becoming a commodity that we are buying into. As a result, today’s fee-paying students are beginning to demand more than ever before, forcing universities to deliver a better “service” and value for money. One element of this is: are students’ chosen courses allowing them to study what they want to study?
Your course is one of the most important parts of your university experience; arguably it should be one of your main motivations for applying to, and accepting the offer of, that university. As the content is what you will study for at least three years, it should be interesting to you. It should challenge your existing knowledge and advance your potential understanding. It should teach you new skills and hone those you already have. It should teach you to think, whether that’s about a practical skill or a philosophical concept. It should motivate you and inspire you – to work and want to work.
But does this mean that students should have a say in their course content? I don’t think so. All students apply for a course: one that may not remain entirely consistent throughout the duration of the degree, but one that follows the same basic ideas and strands of teaching. That particular course may have particularly appealed to the interests of some students, or be especially focused on a career path desired by others, so should it be able to be altered once students have embarked on it just because it doesn’t fit some students’ preferences?
I chose my course because I was very interested in the geopolitics element: if, after my first year, students had been allowed to vote that out of subsequent years, I would have been angry and disappointed. Similarly, course content tends to match the research interests of the universities and the teaching staff within them. It is unrealistic to assign students the power of ultimate choice: it is impossible to continually manipulate the teaching frameworks and lecturers within institutions based on a year group’s predilections.
Student choice does remain an extremely positive feature within some courses, however. I was attracted to my university course because of the ability to choose which modules I took, allowing me to specialise and pursue my specific interests, even choosing to take a module from a different department. I wholly advocate such flexibility, which allows students to tailor a generally interesting course to their individual passions and gives them an opportunity to take increased responsibility for their own learning.
Student feedback and student choice, however, are not the same thing. Student feedback is not something that should receive the same scepticism. Since students have chosen a particular course, one for which they are paying up to £9,000 a year, they deserve to be considered and attended to as part of the ambition to achieve “teaching excellence”. I believe that there should be platforms for students to voice their opinions, be it through questionnaires, discussions or committees, and for universities to take reasonable action as a result. Universities are constantly encouraging students to improve their standards, their essays, their presentations – and students should be permitted to push universities to do the same. If the content of a course is substantially different from what was advertised or expected, they should be held accountable for that. If a course is disappointing and unengaging, the department should be aware of that. If the course was too difficult or too easy, it should be recognised. This is where choice is important – for the student to improve their academic university experience, and for the university to offer a more inspiring, engaging and challenging educational setting.
It’s not about a culture of demanding a prescribed service just because you paid for it. It’s about encouraging institutions to be better: to motivate a “better” education, to support “better” students and create “better” environments for teaching and learning.