Despite the hours students and their lecturers spend together, there’s a disparity in how much each knows about what the other thinks.
Students have their chance to formally evaluate classes, just in case their feelings weren’t flashing across their faces throughout the lectures. But, coursework grades aside, students don’t tend to have access to the inner thoughts of their university teachers.
The Times Higher Education University Workplace Survey 2016 provides greater access to what academics really think about their students.
Clusters of comments around particular themes reveal some clear trends in how UK academics view their students, undergraduate degrees and the university experience.
Ultimately, it’s a mixed bag of attitudes. So here are the surprising, and unsurprising, comments that academics have made about their students this year.
1. A good degree isn’t what it used to be
“The degree classification has been devalued in the drive for more firsts.”
This time it’s not your parents telling you how much harder “O levels” were in their day, but academics with legitimate concerns about grade inflation and the pressure from above to dish out marks that have little, if nothing, to do with real achievement.
Of all academics surveyed, almost half said that the pressure to give students better marks has increased, and only 30 per cent disagreed – the other 21 per cent took a middle ground.
One respondent explained: “We are told to meet a target of an 85% pass rate routinely, irrespective of student performance / ability; we are not teaching at anything like university level.”
Another explicitly compared the current quality of a degree result to what it would have been 10 years ago:
“It seems the University is constantly looking for ways that students can obtain higher classifications, based on lower results. What ten years ago would have been a 2:2 is getting nearer and nearer to soon becoming a 1st.”
In total, 26 different academics freely expressed similar concerns when asked an open question about their general thoughts.
2. Admissions criteria are pretty low
“It does not make me proud to work in an institution where very many students lack literacy and numeracy skills and have little regard for learning.”
That was one of the most forlorn comments submitted, beaten only by one person who, complaining about the low standards of the students they have to teach, said: “I feel ashamed even to tell my friends what I do for a living. I feel I am failing Britain and society in general...”
Slightly more than 50 per cent of the academics said that their university had compromised on student quality to increase or preserve the numbers of students at the university. And the concerns were not just about general academic ability, but also that students were not independent enough to learn at university:
“The students that tend to be recruited…require a great deal of support. In a previous era, they would not have attended university.”
While 42.3 per cent of academics said that international students did read and write English at an adequate level, a significant number of comments showed an alternative perspective:
“Our international office demands that we accept any international students (regardless of intellectual capacity, academic qualifications or English language).”
One respondent simply commented: “The standard of English by some International Students is very, very poor.”
3. But students are vital to academics’ happiness
“Students are the only respite from a miserable, bullying and uncertain workplace.”
The biggest surprise was the overwhelming number of comments – more than a quarter of all submitted – saying exactly the same thing: that students are one of the only positives of an otherwise miserable experience. Not exactly heart-warming, but it is certainly important to know that, as a student, you might be responsible for lifting the spirits of a struggling academic.
“My place of work is only tolerable because I work in a Faculty that attracts – for the most part – students who are keen to take part and engage in learning, and are equipped to do so,” one academic wrote.
Another said more succinctly: “It’s the students and immediate colleagues which keep me going.”
In total, 77.3 per cent of the academics surveyed either agreed or strongly agreed that their teaching is a source of satisfaction to them.
Which goes to show that, in spite of concerns about the quality of students and the value of degree results, academics still count teaching as one of the primary joys of the job.
4. In fact, student success is very inspiring
“The fact we have students coming from very different experiences and backgrounds, and mature students especially, [is] a great source of inspiration to me.”
It’s not the mere act of teaching that inspires academics, but rather, seeing the impact it makes on their students. And this is even more powerful for those working with students from diverse backgrounds and levels of ability.
An academic commented: “I am motivated by working in an institution with a high number of low-income and WP [widening participation] students, and seeing the real differences that university education makes to their future.”
While another said: “I also thoroughly enjoy seeing students develop in confidence and thrive even though they may not have achieved at the highest level prior to entering our courses.”
Some academics may feel like they are “failing society”, but others clearly have not lost sight of the real difference their work is making to students.
5. Yet some academics think students are too much of a priority
From some perspectives, it does seem like university life completely revolves around the students. But, of course, there’s a lot more to a university, and prioritising different needs is often a delicate balancing act.
For some academics, this balance is totally out of whack, with students getting far more than their due.
One academic felt the balance needed to entirely flip: “Staff should have priority over students for parking spaces and childcare, not the other way round,” they said.
But another simply worried that their needs were getting overlooked, writing: “In the last few years I have noticed that the needs of the students are considered to be more important than the well-being of staff.”
Students probably don’t feel that they’re getting the better deal, but perhaps this just shows that within the current situation at UK universities, both students and staff feel that they are losing out.
6. Private universities have less bureaucracy
When we asked students why they loved their small university, a handful told us that they appreciated not having to deal with the “red tape” they would expect to experience elsewhere.
According to at least one academic, the same is true of private universities, which also tend to be much smaller than average.
The academic also drew a connection between well-being and (a lack of) bureaucracy: “We’re a private university, which means that we can avoid a lot of the bureaucracy present in other institutions. This massively increases staff and student well-being.”
7. The university is turning into a job centre or degree factory
“Senior leadership is turning the university into a corporate-style degree factory.”
The introduction of higher tuition fees has affected students and academics both in practical terms and in mindset. Students are often seen, and are beginning to see themselves, as customers who are owed the goods they have paid for.
For some students, and some university leaders, this means ensuring that students graduate with a foot in the door of a stable, well-paid career.
One academic says this misses the point of education: “I have watched universities change from being respected centres of higher learning that build character in students and prepare them to take positive roles in society to becoming commercialised extensions of job centres,” they lamented.
Another says that student demands are watering down the quality of the work: “Ever since it’s slowly becoming less of an excellence centre for research and teaching, and more of a corner shop where students come to buy their degrees and expect to be spoonfed.”
8. Students increasingly need more pastoral care
Going to university is not easy, and academics recognise the toll it can take on vulnerable people.
Echoing earlier concerns about recruiting students who weren’t quite suitable for the institution, an academic at a prestigious university said: “Students are experiencing greater stress and mental health issues and suicide rates have risen dramatically during the past 15 years as we recruit those who struggle to achieve in a Russell Group University. This makes me very sad.”
Another academic noticed the burden this has placed on staff. They said: “Students have become more demanding in terms of welfare. They are less independent. They also apply more pressures on the service than in previous years.”
Neither of these academics seems to be blaming students for the extra burden they pose, but rather regrets the factors outside their control that have led to this unsustainable situation.
9. And they aren’t interested in learning
“I'm glad I'm retiring. It has become increasingly rare for students to be motivated or engaged by their studies, or to possess what, for me, is an ordinary degree of cultural and academic hinterland.”
In what is perhaps the least surprising insight for anyone who has ever been at a university, academics wish their students were more dedicated to their studies.
More than one academic felt that a decreased investment in their studies actually resulted from the increased fees, somewhat ironically.
One said: “I wish the students did the reading set for them, or at least showed some remorse for brazenly turning up to seminars without having done any prep. I just feel like I’m wasting my time trying to put together interesting sessions. Many want to be spoonfed and have their hand held (and a 2:1).”
Another saw connections between tuition fees, complacency and how students treat staff, explaining: “With increased student fees, students expect to pass even if they do not turn up to lectures. The effort put in by students has deteriorated over the years and they respect staff less.”
10. Student feedback is a tool for bullying
“Student feedback mechanisms allow for racial and other personal derogatory comments which go through unchecked.”
A striking number of comments addressed the problem of student feedback. More specifically, the problem of students bullying lecturers and using their feedback mechanisms to make counterproductive demands.
The academics only partly blamed students for these problems, as they also held university leadership responsible for an attitude that gives students all the bargaining power.
One person commented: “Staff are regularly subjected to deeply personal attacks from anonymous students, and these scores are published openly. Pedagogy is allowed to be second guessed by students, and whatever the students want they get, regardless of whether it is good teaching practice or not.”
More than one noted that the fear of bad teaching evaluations was in essence holding lecturers hostage.
“Students are now increasingly trying (and sometimes succeeding) in bullying lecturers who don’t feel they can fight back because of the need for good teaching evaluations,” an academic said.
All in all, the picture that emerges of UK students is rather incoherent. It seems that most UK academics feel incredibly privileged and inspired to work with their students, but many also worry that the students expect too much for too little work, do not appreciate the value of their education, or even bully lecturers into getting exactly what they feel they are due.
If the opinions of academics seem confused, it’s reasonable to think that the competing pressures from both above (university management) and below (fee-paying students) really are that difficult to manage. These comments certainly seem to shed some light on the complex world of UK universities.