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Education Post Graduate: Teachers have a lot to learn

Teaching at universities is facing mounting pressures - and the wrath of students.
A SURVEY conducted by the National Union of Students into the quality of complaints procedures in British universities last week showed two major trends. More than half the student bodies surveyed said the number of student complaints was rising, and 82.6 per cent of complaints were directed at sub-standard teaching.

As academics have to work hard on research in the pursuit of good official gradings and the cash they bring, teaching in universities is increasingly delegated to young postgraduates, often paid very little and with no guidance given on how to teach.

As a postgraduate, I was given the chance to do some part-time teaching, by taking tutorials for first-year students. I graduated with a degree in politics from the University of Liverpool in 1996 and went straight on to do a postgraduate Master of Philosophy degree. This involved researching the condition of humanitarian aid policy of the West towards the refugees of civil conflict. I had no set lessons or lectures, and my time was my own to visit libraries, read the mountain of material available on the subject and write a 200-page thesis.

The students I would be teaching were taking a unit of the first-year politics course - a crash course into the various institutions of British politics. As well as being my only source of income - pounds 10 per hour of teaching, pounds 10 per hour for preparation - it also turned out to be an insight into the difficulties of being a university teacher. Having gained a degree only a year ago it was suddenly me who was being stared at by dozens of freshers expecting me to say something interesting.

The first thing that struck me was the number of students that I was allocated. There were seven groups of up to 15 students scheduled to see me only once a fortnight. It became apparent that, due to the numbers and lack of time available, I was not going to be able to help many of them understand what they were being taught. I found that the only way to explain certain ideas or institutions to individuals was to respond to direct questions and find a way of explaining the concepts. But it is impossible to provide that level of help to every student when there are so many of them to start with.

These overwhelming numbers are a feature of many degree courses. Joe Allen, who also studied at Liverpool, says: "There were times when I simply could not grasp the ideas that were being put forward in lectures. All the lecturers had times printed on their doors when they could see students and answer queries.

"However, most of them were only available for, at most, an hour a week. I went to them occasionally, but it's hard enough understanding complex philosophical theories without having a queue of people outside pressuring the teacher to get you out of the way."

With mounting pressures on teachers caused by increasing numbers of students, it is the latter who suffer directly. The basic skills required to move from higher education into the minefield of the graduate job market are often ignored. While marking essays I came across students whose use of English language and grammar was really poor. But there is precious little time to teach the academic content of degree courses, let alone basic English language and grammar.

This is progressively having a negative effect on the quality of certain graduates. Earlier this year, David John, the head of management development and selection at British Steel, said that graduate training is now "...typically costing twice as much as 10 years ago".

It can be a frustrating time being a student, though. From my years at university I always felt that teaching was never the highest priority for many of my teachers. Lectures, essay marking and tutorials appeared to be an irritation: something that got in the way of other, more important work.

This is not an uncommon feeling. In 1997, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, complained that his son was not being taught properly at university and was reported to have said: "The people teaching him are not interested in teaching. They are more interested in their own research. I don't think it's acceptable."

Neither do I. However, at the time I was teaching (which lasted just over three months), I was in the process of editing my thesis again and again and again to produce a final version that was good enough to present for the examiners. This took up nearly all my time outside teaching and, I don't mind admitting, was my sole priority. My research was the reason that I was teaching at all.

Quality lecturers have the natural instinct to put across ideas in an accessible way and inspire students to think about and challenge those ideas. However, no matter how good a lecturer is, if their research is their highest priority - and in many cases lecturers are appointed solely on the basis of that research - teaching will suffer. As funding requirements dictate the need for a growing workload of research for lecturers, it has led one to describe the experience as "...trying to run up the down escalator, an escalator that is moving ever faster".

The research for a Master's degree is a full-time occupation, and it was hard work juggling that workload with trying to help every student in my classes. I did get a lot of satisfaction out of it though, and if you take the right attitude it can be an enlightening experience. I had never thought of myself as a teacher before, and it could be something that I would turn to in the future. But I realise now that the pressures facing university teachers are not fully appreciated. As a teacher, I felt as much a victim of the growth in student-to-staff ratio and the squeezing of limited resources as the lecturers did.