Having studied for several years and gaining a post as a member of academic staff at a university in Northern Ireland, I was elated. All the hard work had paid off and I was in a position to impart some knowledge to those interested in my field. I could help people who found themselves facing the challenges which I had faced in the not-too-distant past.
I thought I knew what to expect: the musty smell of the library, struggling to engage with those nursing hangovers, piles of coursework, and perhaps even some lively discussion. I was not expecting to see the frankly cavernous ethical fault-lines in the higher education system.
At first I thought my perspective came as a result of being a poacher turned gamekeeper; perhaps some part of my subconscious struggling to move on, clinging to the last moments of my carefree student days. However, after being asked to consider the possibility of not failing some of my students who had barely made the effort to attend before submitting some truly abysmal work, I began to ask myself if there was some deeper problem.
In particular, I thought of the similar stories I’d been hearing from academic colleagues and acquaintances which prompted me to assess the structure of our current higher education system. After I concluded some cursory investigations, it was obvious why that the essence of teaching could and probably would have gotten lost.
Higher education is a business, perhaps now more than ever. It is a results-based industry. Success is measured primarily by the impact and viability of academic research carried out at individual institutions. The results are collated by the government-led Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), the last of which was conducted in 2008. The RAE is set to be replaced by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which will be undertaken in 2014, following roughly the same strategy as the RAE.
Northern Ireland has four Higher Education Institutions (HEIs): Queen’s University Belfast, University of Ulster and the two teacher training colleges at Stranmillis and St Mary’s.
As part of its financial remit, the devolved administration funds our universities for teaching. Queen’s was granted some £69 million this year for teaching; UU around £65 million; each teaching college has around £5 million. Queen’s receives a little more based on the fact it was ranked 38th by the RAE, compared with the University of Ulster, which came 44th.
Moreover, the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) will this year pump some £206.3 million into our HEIs, a figure which includes other funds apart from teaching. However, even though teaching funds comprise the majority of public money given over to our institutions, they are increasingly at risk of compromising the character of the teaching they provide.
The paradox is this: institutional success is measured by research carried out by staff and PhD, MRes students. But most (around two-thirds) government money given to the universities here is for teaching undergraduates and those on other taught Postgrad courses. Only around one-third is for research.
This comprises one half of the problem: the creation of an attitude whereby the government is a customer, paying money to the universities who are service providers. The service being purchased is teaching – but the price is based upon the value of another service, research.
The second half of the customer-provider problem comes from the students themselves. They pay fees, whether from their own or family funds or by way of the Student Loans Company. This gives many students the attitude that they have paid for teaching and have the right to scrutinise it, which they do regularly. All institutions here require students to evaluate the teaching offered in each module – normally completed via anonymous questionnaires and comment sheets.
The atmosphere created by the customer-provider paradigm contributes to a staggering conflict of interest in terms of taking an ethical path to achieving academic goals and reflects some rather dangerous opinions which have begun to appear among some students at these institutions, namely: “We have paid the money, therefore we can’t fail.”
This ultimately leads to the dilution and potentially the eventual loss of the academic essence of university education; a disastrous state of affaris at a time when higher education must be seen as an integral part of economic regeneration.
While no institution would ever admit to it, they do not want to fail students; not out of loyalty to students who may struggle to get over the line, but because teaching money is affected by the number of failures across the board. So this atmosphere creates an incentive for academics to find excuses to pass some students at the bare minimum (40%) when they would really fail if marked ethically and correctly.
Through some fairly preliminary research, it has been all too easy to see that my own experience is far from unique. Others in higher education in Northern Ireland tell me that students who do not attend regularly are not so easily discarded now as they might have been even ten years ago. Students who lack the basic skills required to produce original academic work can find themselves with degrees after three years. The climate created is a pressured one where academics are forced to deal with more administration and pastoral duties than they are either trained or credited for; in such circumstances research is bound to suffer.
So the question is posed: what is the value of a degree from the current system? There is a danger that some underperforming students can still pass at degree level and graduate alongside those who have battled for every mark. Moreover, how can a prospective employer tell the difference and how can we maintain faith in the quality and acumen of our graduates?
Red ink dries faster on essays than on Assembly balance books and funding cheques.
Members of staff at such institutions are paid to teach and impose critique on students’ work. Comments are concocted with appropriate pause and calculation though it may only rarely resonate with a student for more than a fleeting instant.
Academic issues are increasingly quickly identifiable, though not so easily addressed. Increasingly, I see work where very basic grammar structures are ignored, the work is riddled with childish and or colloquial syntax and, en masse, there is a general lack of dynamism. In the worst cases, other teachers and I read plagiarism and copied work. Aside from legal issues of copyright, this is an ethical trespass which should result in failure of the module in question. It is essentially stealing someone else’s work and passing it off as original research and or argument. Astonishingly, we are still expected (if not coerced) to not fail our students, giving them several chances to resubmit or ‘try again’. Hands up who can guess why?
The answer comes back to the horrid customer-provider model which may certainly be applicable to other businesses but not to academia. Students do not pay money for a degree, they pay for access to the materials and teaching contact time which may facilitate them on an academic journey which may or may not culminate in the conferral of an award.
Similarly, the government cannot blame teachers for student apathy and cultural change whereby many students submit quotes from Wikipedia in place of academic discourse. You can take a horse to the library but you can’t make them read.
If higher level educators are to inherit the products of mainstream education, namely a vast amount of students who have been spoon-fed information to ‘pass exams’ in lieu of a wider education, they should at least be allowed to rate the submitted work in relation to the same standards which dictate where the government money goes- impact, viability, originality and transferable skill.
Otherwise, the government will continually fund research projects at some poor universities, oblivious of the teaching on offer there- essentially, universities will lose their character as places of teaching and learning.
In short, university is not for everyone, nor should it be thought of as such. The liberal in me knows that everyone should have the right to go into third level education and beyond. However, the realist in me understands that some will exercise that right with more success than others and some people are simply not cut out for the workload, lifestyle and deadlines.
Put simply: everyone should have the right to go, but not everyone should have the right to pass.