Too much timid teaching

The separation of research from teaching at UK universities undermines student independence and downgrades academic excellence.

Mark Ramsden

Topics Politics

Twenty years ago there was a pronounced difference between higher education and all other forms of education. In many ways this is still the case today – but there is a worrying trend towards turning higher education into an extension of schooling.

Consequently, there is a danger that university students will be rewarded with just another qualification rather than a qualitatively different and challenging experience.

One big difference between universities and all other educational institutions is that universities have traditionally focused on research, allowing them to play a special role in society – adding to knowledge and promoting development. A dedication to research ensured that universities were not higher-level schools, where students are passively taught, but forums where students developed self-learning skills which allowed them to actively engage with a subject.

But increasingly, research is being separated from teaching (1) – which adds to colleges’ pressure to find private sector funding for research projects. Apart from bringing into question independence and objectivity, this separation favours applied research over more theoretical and abstract thinking – paralleling moves to discourage the teaching of courses that do not have employability value.

In an attempt to ensure that graduates are employable after leaving university, there is also a preoccupation with what are called ‘key skills’ (2) – including ‘communication’, ‘working with others’, ‘problem-solving’ and ‘learning how to learn’. But surely such skills are really just attributes of a mature adult? Which is ironic, given that changes in higher education mean that students are being treated more like schoolkids than adults.

Another central part of university life is being eroded – learning to live independently. As grants are removed and more students remain at home with mum and dad while studying, the ‘maturing’ element of a degree is being lost. In the past, for most students, starting a degree course meant leaving home for good and turning from teenagedom to adulthood. This meant mastering the tedious chores of day-to-day living as well as making a new social life and network of friends.

This passage into adulthood also implied that students would take a big share of responsibility for their own learning. Between lectures students were expected to spend time reading, researching, preparing for tutorials. This process of inquiry gave students the motivation to get through a course – and in my experience, research is an excellent way to engage students and help them get to grips with a subject in an independent manner.

At a university I recently worked at, a student was given the project of assessing the feasibility of implementing a radio-operated computer network in a particular building. This had obvious advantages for his tutor, who could use some of the student’s work for his own research purposes – but it also motivated the student, who was given responsibility for a live project.

Within a culture of research, lectures allow staff to air their opinions and test out new ideas rather than passively follow a given syllabus. Tutorials and seminars test students’ knowledge and their ability to put forward clear arguments, giving them the opportunity to form opinions and engage with competing views. Not only does this make teaching and learning more interesting – it encourages students not to accept facts at face value, but to read between the lines, to probe deeper, to analyse all outlooks before forming an opinion.

But today, students are increasingly demanding to be ‘told the answer’ rather than wanting to engage in a discussion. This reflects a more passive relationship between students and staff, and a lowering of learner aspirations. And as class sizes at universities grow, there is even less chance of discussion or for staff to give students individual attention.

When I was studying for a degree I attended lectures given by a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher – a position that he lost because, according to rumour, he was too right-wing even for Thatcher. Although I was not always the best when it came to concentrating in lectures, in his I was compelled. There was probably an element of being starstruck by somebody who reeked of government and power (I often wonder what it would be like to be taught by lecturers Germaine Greer or Tom Paulin, who seem to spend most of their time in a TV studio) – but there was also his partisan attitude, which grabbed and provoked my attention.

This tutor didn’t give a balanced view on a particular topic – he offered his own, often controversial views. It didn’t convert me to his political way of thinking because I was adult enough to make up my own mind – but it did challenge me to think of arguments to combat his.

The point is, when we get to university we should be treated like adults. We should be confronted with new ideas and encouraged to experiment with and form our own new ideas, rather than being spoonfed a series of established facts. This should be all part of a culture of research. And fresh knowledge does not come from a teacher who knows his or her syllabus inside out, but from people who are actively engaged in research, who want to advance their fields and who believe they have the right answer to a problem.

Mark Ramsden is a research associate in the Department of Geography, Cambridge University.

Read on:

spiked-issues: Education

(1) ‘A Marriage on the Rocks’, Rowlands, S (1999), LM Magazine, No 124, p14

(2) Higher Education in the Learning Society, National Committee for Inquiry into Higher Education, DfEE, 1997

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Topics Politics


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