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.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Midsummer swimwear season is well and truly upon us – but diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

SEN Teacher, Permanent Role in Ashford

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad urgently seeks a qualif...

Drama Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: We are looking for someone who can t...

**Science Teacher Urgently Required for September**

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Science Teacher Urgently ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice