Infantilising students

'Good behaviour contracts' for university students undermine the informal relations that make higher education possible.

James Panton

Topics Politics

To kick off the new academic year, the universities of Oxford and Chester are introducing ‘good behaviour contracts’ which all students will be obliged to sign as a condition of their study (1).

Many of the conditions in the contracts are entirely technical, reminding students of their obligations: they must pay their tuition fees and residency charges, and obey the college’s regulations. Yet there is also an attempt to codify previously informal assumptions about academic and intellectual behaviour at university.

The University of Chester contract obliges students to ‘undertake any preliminary reading or other academic preparation’ as outlined by the student’s department or faculty, ‘to study diligently, and to attend promptly and participate appropriately at lectures, courses, classes, tutorials, work placements and other activities which form part of the programme’ (2). The Oxford contract says students must undertake ‘the reading of materials, carrying out prescribed activities such as practicals, the completion of written work, attendance in tutorials and classes and lectures, and the sitting of university and internal college examinations.’ The contract also warns that ‘failure to abide by these regulations may lead to the imposition of disciplinary measures, which may include suspension or expulsion.’ (3)

As a college tutor and lecturer, I can say that these are pretty standard demands to make of students. When I set preparatory reading or an essay deadline, I expect students to do the necessary work, on time. Such expectations are at the heart of the relationship between academics and their students. So why do some universities now feel they need a legal contract to make these expectations clear to their students?

One thing driving this contractualisation of academic life is fear of litigation. The author of the Oxford contract, Michael Beloff QC, president of Trinity College, expressed this desire on the part of college authorities to protect themselves from students who might decide to sue: ‘If (which is in the present climate a realistic possibility) a student seeks to allege a breach by the college of its obligations towards him/her, the college will find it easier to determine its course of action, if it can be confident that it can locate the document in which those obligations are contained. (4) So the contract draws together in a single document the obligations of the university or college – to provide library facilities, accommodation, meals and tuition – and the responsibilities of the students: to pay their fees and to do their work.

These pre-emptive measures against potential litigation from students show the extent to which universities are now understood to be the providers of a service that their student/customers consume. It is disappointing, then, though not really surprising, that the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) expresses just such a consumerist mentality in its complaints about the new contracts. Stating that ‘a college-student contract is not by nature undesirable’, OUSU complains that ‘the current contract is one-sided, leaving students vulnerable to changes in accommodation, fees and charges and teaching, with no room for redress’. OUSU asks for a new contract which also sets out ‘the rights of students, including a minimum standard for teaching, accommodation, and a commitment to agreeing changes in fees and charges with students’ (5).

However, there are far more important reasons why those of us in the university sector ought to reject the introduction of student-university contracts altogether. The contracts will serve to undermine the kinds of informal relationships that higher education is built upon.

One assumption which we tutors work from is that our students are adults. The difference between childhood and adulthood is expressed in the different substances of secondary and higher education. Children are immature; they lack autonomy. They generally should not be left to their own devices, but rather require rules to abide by and discipline in order to make sure they do their work and advance. Adults, by contrast – including the young adults who enter university at the age of 18 – are assumed to have both the autonomy to be able to leave home and look after themselves, and the intellectual capability to engage with the rigours of their chosen discipline.

The new contracts, however, seem to be based on the notion that students are potentially naughty schoolchildren who need to be reminded, explicitly, of the rules and regulations. The contracts also treat university tutors as high-school teachers who teach to a set syllabus and who must advise our charges on what is expected of them at all times.

Universities are more than a direct extension of schooling, and the role of a university tutor is different to the role of a shoolteacher. The Cambridge literary critic FR Leavis said of teaching in a university: ‘I see the word “teaching” in inverted commas. I don’t like it because of the suggestion it carries of telling – authoritative telling.’ (6) ‘Authoritative telling’ plays some role in higher education; there are certain truths and facts students must know before they can fully explore their discipline. But such ‘telling’ only provides the building blocks from which the students must begin to construct, with the help of their tutors, their own intellectual development.

The new contracts also set up an oppositional relationship between students and academics, which is likely to undermine the possibility of real intellectual engagement.

The relationship between the university tutor and student involves creative tension – between the academic who has a greater knowledge and experience of the discipline, and the student who desires to master and push forward the discipline (7). The relationship between student and tutor is therefore one of common scholarship. As a tutor, I have the possibility of pointing my students in the right direction, but from that moment on we are equals in our capacity to think through an issue, grapple with the problems it raises, and find answers. In contrast, the new contracts will transform the relationship into one between a wayward child and a disciplining parent.

Many of the things the contracts seek to codify are matters of academic judgement that do not fit easily into a legal framework. What work a student should undertake, how many books he needs to read, what constitutes a productive tutorial, whether a student should attend a series of lectures or instead spend his time more fruitfully studying in the library, or – perish the thought – even mulling things over in the pub…. these are matters of academic judgement. That doesn’t just mean judgements made by academics. At the core of higher education is the students’ self-motivated effort to engage with their subject, and often it is up to them to decide what form that engagement should take.

Of course, if and when it becomes clear that a certain student is not doing the work, then some discipline is called for. But such discipline is grounded in the fact that the student is not engaging qualitatively with the material; it cannot be grounded in a quantitative exercise of counting the numbers of lectures they have failed to attend, or the number of books they have checked out of the library for that week’s assignment.

We cannot force our students to read books, attend lectures, or write essays. A university ought to be a place where those with a passion to learn can be challenged and pushed intellectually. If that is not the dominant ethos in the university sector at the moment, then it is hardly surprising if some students are taking their university courses less seriously than we might hope.

It is a cop-out to dress up what ought to be academic judgements in the terms and conditions of a contract. A more difficult, but more worthwhile approach to improving the attitudes of students and the standards of academic work would be for those of us in the academy to work towards establishing a culture that emphasises serious intellectual engagement, hard work and intellectual autonomy. And that will mean challenging the service-oriented, dumbed-down ethos that is currently chipping away at higher education, and which gave rise to the new student contracts in the first place.

James Panton is politics lecturer at St John’s College, Oxford, and campaigns co-ordinator of the Manifesto Club.

(1) James Meikle, ‘Students told: turn up or face expulsion’, The Guardian, Monday 11 September 2006

(2) ‘Student Contract Conditions’, Section 3: ‘Your Obligations’, University of Chester

(3) ‘Student-College Contract’, Conf 05/62, Sections 11

(4) Quoted in Jonathan Richards and Tony Halpin, ‘Students forced to sign “I’ll try harder” contracts’, The Times, January 31 2006

(5) See the OUSU website

(6) R Leavis, English Literature in Our Time and the University (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967).

(7) See James Panton, ‘What are universities for?’, in D Cummings (ed), The Changing Role of the Public Intellectual (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).

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Topics Politics


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