University students are adults

university studentsUniversity culture has changed a great deal since I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s – mostly, I must say, for the worse. The introduction of tuition fees has turned the students into ‘customers’, many of whom take a high-handed, even petulant, tone as they demand their lecturers smooth the path to their success. One of the myriad problems with this is that success is measured purely in marks: the degree is a qualification, a passport, rather than a process of learning and maturing. Alongside this, we have the advent of ‘helicopter parents’, who can’t allow their offspring to experiment, fail and learn from experience. Whether because they have paid thousands of pounds for their children to attend university or simply because these days parents who don’t mollycoddle, interfere and control are practically denounced as irresponsible, these people get stuck in. And they are doing a grave disservice to their sons and daughters by infantilising them.

These changes in attitude put university lecturers under strain in several ways. The students’ blinkered focus on what’s in the exam leaves little time or motivation to explore other aspects of the subject, which would broaden and deepen understanding but are considered irrelevant if they don’t lead directly to a certificate. Taken to its logical conclusion, this reduces the lecturer to the status of a talking textbook, preferably to an actual textbook only because he or she doesn’t bother to discuss anything that’s not going to be in the exam. Where is the job satisfaction in that? Equally importantly, it may be what the students are demanding but is it really in their interest to give it to them?

On top of that, lecturers are submitted to an endless process of appraisal by their students and their careers can be made or broken by the scores and comments on these anonymous feedback forms.

As Daisy Buchanan makes plain in The Guardian, parents should back off and let their children grow up by learning for themselves. But what can university lecturers do to improve the situation? Well, for a start, they can resist (as many are) the insidious redefinition of their role to include nagging students in loco parentis. As Frank Furedi points out in The Independent, university students are not toddlers and treating them as if they are does nothing to equip them for life.

From the students’ perspective, the purpose of getting a degree may be purely the qualification but this is not, of course, an end in itself. The idea is the qualification should open the door to a highly paid, stimulating job. The sad fact that huge numbers of graduates are unable to find employment at that level – or, in many cases, at all – suggests not only that the higher-education system is flawed (as Aditya Chakrabortty describes in The Guardian) but that students would benefit from a more rounded experience of university education.

Even for those lucky graduates who do manage to land a job, a survey by the National Union of Students a couple of years ago found (according to this article in The Observer): “one in five students on an engineering or technology course does not believe his or her degree prepares them adequately for future employment. The same is true for one in 10 studying medicine and nearly one in four studying computing and maths”. Liam Burns, the then President of the NUS, cites this as evidence that university lecturers should all have a teaching qualification.

The best thing university lecturers can do is to take a robust approach to their teaching. I don’t believe a compulsory qualification is necessarily the answer but it’s clearly essential to know how to teach effectively. The next step is to have faith in that ability, not to be cowed or undermined by the threat of negative feedback. Treating the students as adults, connecting with them, infusing them with your love for the subject, this is the way forward. Help them to understand that the world is much bigger than the exam, teach them how to learn by and for themselves, support them as they question received wisdom and test the boundaries.

This may sound idealistic but it works. A lecturer who behaves like a flunky will not earn the respect of the ‘customers’. A lecturer who inspires his or her students and empowers them to think for themselves, on the other hand, will be rewarded with positive feedback (perhaps not in the first term but by the end of the first year), job satisfaction and the rosy glow of helping to shape the future by giving students what they really need, as opposed to what they say they want.

If you’re a university lecturer and would like some one-to-one support with your teaching, please contact me. A session or two of coaching can make all the difference to your success and enjoyment.