Education Viewpoint: Let's return to learning

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Academic standards in our universities are suffering because of several striking changes in the past few years. Much has been said about the growing numbers of young people wanting to enter universities and the ever-increasing cuts in public expenditure. But there are other factors, too.

Bureaucracy has increased. Campaigns to recruit students from abroad are now the order of the day. Thanks to the so-called 'academic auditing system', universities now treat students as 'consumers' and these, in turn, demand more 'service' and more 'spoon-feeding'. Rigidly formulated assignments that are not too complex seem to provide easy ways of coping with this demand, as well as the pressures of increased numbers.

One repeatedly hears of the need for courses in 'how to study' - contradicting Peter Kropotkin's view that universities are for people who already know something. Researchers have become more self-centred as a result of pressures to boost their publication record. Graduate courses are considered wasteful of staff's valuable research time, as they do not lend themselves to what is known as the 'sardine option'.

The amount of paperwork we produce for each component of a course to satisfy the academic audit requirements is immense. Valuable teaching and research time of academics from other departments is then wasted in reviewing these documents. The reviewers, in turn, are forced by the system to be uncreative bureaucrats and become specialists in fault finding.

Bertrand Russell underlined the problem well in his essay on The Function of a Teacher: 'No one would consent in our day to subject the medical man to the control of non-medical authorities, except when they depart criminally from the purpose of medicine, which is to cure the patient. The teacher is a kind of medical man, but he is not allowed to decide what methods are suitable to this end.'

No one is decrying the need for accountability but the universities are stifled by being made accountable to too many bodies. How did we achieve the status of having the best institutions of higher education in the world before we had all these controls?

University affairs have been affected by interfering politicians and civil servants without much of a protest from the academics. Perhaps this is partly because professors no longer act as heads of departments, leaving the task to someone periodically elected by staff. To an outsider this might seem a good thing. But the real reason behind the change is that the professors quickly see the impossibility of managing a department within the ridiculously low budget and other restrictions thrust upon them.

However well-intentioned the people who take over may be, the 'accountancy ethos' does not allow for a creative partnership between administrators and professors. Administrative heads govern through committees and memos, and the pressure on them to balance the books is such that they assume a much higher profile than in the past.

The more the universities are subjected to financial stringency the more they seem to send academics abroad to tout for business. It is not uncommon for them to visit the Middle and Far East to extol the virtues of study in a British university. But with the present overcrowding and under-funding, what can we tell young people from, say, Singapore or Malaysia when they ask about study in Britain? Should we tell them to stay at home, where standards are higher in every respect?

Our task is to ensure a healthy future for our institutions by mobilising our powers of thought. We need to find an alternative to the notion of a shift system of four terms in a year to solve the problem of increased numbers of students. Academics must not be denied the opportunity of the summer break for research, otherwise higher education will stagnate even further.

Academics are often unwilling to become polarised about topical political issues. But in many areas we need to take a stance. If there is no alternative to seeking private finances, let us be creative and do so without resorting to tactics such as touting for overseas clients. If Harvard or Princeton offers lessons in leadership, let us learn them properly and ensure that our administrators are as youthful and energetic as in these universities and not meek administrators of the status quo. If we feel US-style university financing is unpalatable, let us devise schemes such as the graduate tax that operates in Australia.

We must solve our financial problems quickly and return to our major concern - academic excellence. Here leadership by our professors is essential. We should put an end to the notion of administrative heads, who can unwittingly help the survival of an unholy alliance between government policy and the culture of money. Most departments do not need heavyweight managers to run their affairs provided there is an assurance of reasonable finances and a degree of autonomy.

We must reverse the trend towards treating students as consumers. This involves seriously questioning the academic audit system, and the course questionnaires on which students scribble so irresponsibly, lowering the morale of many dedicated but battered teachers. There must be more sensible ways of assessing effectiveness.

Cardinal Newman described university as a 'place where inquiry is pushed forward, rashness rendered innocuous and error exposed by the collision of mind with mind'. It is time we returned to such ideals.

The author is senior lecturer in architecture at Edinburgh University.

(Photograph omitted)