The government’s white paper on higher education, unveiled today by David Willetts, contains few surprises. It more-or-less follows the Browne report’s recommendations last year for a university system in which the customer rules supreme. “Student satisfaction” will determine which courses survive and which do not – which in turn will determine which universities survive and which do not. It’s difficult to think of a more depressingly philistine approach to higher education.
I’ve been teaching at universities for the past 20 years, and some of the Willetts/Browne approach makes sense. How students rate their courses matters. They should not be fobbed off with poor teaching or inadequate resources. They have a right to expect regular tutorials, well equipped libraries and decent student halls. Universities should publish details of contact hours students can expect on a course, and they should do their best to present honest statistics about their graduates’ careers and salaries. There should be robust systems available to allow students to express their views of their courses.
But making student satisfaction the be-all and end-all is a recipe for disaster. Education is not a commodity, and pleasing the customer is only part of what it is about. What makes students most happy? A lovely first-class degree! The Willetts/Browne scheme effectively formalises incentives for grade inflation that can only compromise standards. If universities privilege “the student experience” above all else, they give unaccountable power to the whingeing second-rater who thinks she or he deserves a top grade despite having done substandard work - all on the basis of simplistic tick-box questionnaires , completed in minutes, on which lecturers have no comeback – and set up lecturers to encourage non-whingeing students’ positive responses.
And little of it is of any value. I’ve been handing out tick-box feedback forms as a course director for 10 years, and it has been an almost complete waste of time. There have been a handful of occasions when it has flagged up problems with modules of which my course team was already aware – because, hey, we talk to our students and to each other! – but the report of the external examiner and regular course meetings with student reps have always been infinitely more useful in pointing out where we’ve gone wrong (when we have, which isn’t that often).
The root of the problem is that university managers and professional politicians are utterly clueless about what universities actually do. They don’t know the first thing about most of the subjects taught, and they are too lazy – or too busy counting beans - to turn up to lectures to see whether they’re any good. Tick-box feedback has become a means of camouflaging impotence, ignorance and a grotesque breakdown of trust between the people who run higher education institutions and those who actually do the worthwhile work in the lecture theatres and seminar rooms.
There are lecturers who are indolent and incomprehensible, true, but the major problem with higher education right now is that far too much is being spent on bureaucratic back-watchers and careerist hacks and too little on teaching. “Quality assurance” and "the student experience" are nothing but convenient cover for the managers' and ministers' incompetence and stupidity – but they're now the only game in town.