Student contracts will sign away trust

Jo Johnson, the UK universities minister, has recently announced a proposal to introduce student contracts to protect students. Such a contract would both encourage students to work hard, and enable them to pursue legal action against the university if tuition was ‘poor’.

Student contracts are nothing new. When I worked in special education they were called ‘learning contracts’, and used for students with behavioural problems in an attempt to specify exactly what behaviours were expected. This was an exceptional process for those few who could not, for a variety of reasons, be trusted to understand or follow norms of behaviour.

But then, as government policymakers and university managers became obsessed with behaviour problems (and would not trust teachers to deal with them), learning contracts began to crop up throughout the education system. In universities, they most often appear as general ‘charters’ of what students can expect from the university, and what the university expects from them. There are already many contracts for students with disabilities and for those on professional courses.

Some universities already require contractual agreements even at doctoral level. Students and their supervisors are often expected to set ‘objectives’ after each tutorial and sign them. This is largely down to the ideological domination of behaviourist theories of learning in universities, where each programme has a telephone directory list of ‘learning objectives’ and ‘learning outcomes’. Students are often asked to state the ‘aims and objectives’ of their study before they begin.

Many academics are so committed to this form of groupthink that they actively support contracting, and fear their students. They are keen to turn them into trainees who can be controlled. Johnson will encourage more institutional fear by sending out the message that lecturers must make their students happy, or face a court case. Universities will be stricken with institutional fear of legal action from students who don’t get the grades or the degree class they expected. Degrees will become receipts for fees paid.

Student contracts are an explicit expression of mistrust in both students and lecturers. Introducing them will not only create more bureaucracy, by requiring the endless signing and recording of contracts as well as the monitoring of teaching, it will also destroy the epistemological relationship that defines the university.

Turning any relationship between students and academics into a contractual one undermines the learning process. Acquiring and expanding knowledge is an unpredictable, challenging and demanding challenge for students and academics. It can lead to intellectual conflict and passionate disagreement. That is why there must be that unique trust between students and academics. Johnson’s attempt to smooth this process out will break that relationship and fossilise learning, making the pursuit of new knowledge impossible.

If the Office for Students requires universities to introduce student contracts, the university as we knew it is over.

Dennis Hayes is a professor of education at the University of Derby.

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