Higher Education: Lessons for our lecturers: Employers who bemoan the quality of graduates need look no further than Britain's academics for the source of the problem, says Helen Winnifrith

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Areport by the Confederation of British Industry calls for a vast expansion of Britain's universities, almost doubling the number of undergraduate students by the turn of the century, and warns that without this, employers will be unable to find enough flexible, highly skilled employees. However, the report* fails to take into account the reality of life in university arts departments, for example.

'Teaching' usually takes place through seminars and essays, rather than traditional tutorials, when one or two students would discuss their essays with a single lecturer.

Unfortunately, the drive for so-called 'efficiency' has increased the number of students in each seminar, reducing opportunities for participation and lively debate. The number of seminars has also been cut as departments seek to spend less time teaching. A worryingly high proportion of seminars are cancelled, usually by the lecturer and often without notice.

Essays today are unsatisfactory as a form of teaching. Some students are asked to write only one a term. Lecturers may not return them for months afterwards, sometimes with only a mark and no comment. Students actually want more opportunities for teaching and learning, and complain now that these chances are disappearing.

The main cause of these problems is an obsession with research. The Government encourages this new God and lecturers use it as a wonderful reason for absenteeism. 'Research' means publishing books and giving papers to people at conferences, even if the 'conference' is six people doing the crossword wishing it was time for the coffee break.

Extra credit is given if your boring article is quoted in another boring article - this is called 'citation points'. What is the value of all this research, and who is it for?

When sixth-formers apply to universities they receive lots of glossy literature about the success of that university, proudly quoting its research score. Are prospective students or their parents really interested in the number books, articles or papers that have been produced in the past year? Aren't they quite rightly more interested in the lecturers' contact with the students?

As taxpayers and parents, we need to know that students are in universities where reasonably clever people will help them to develop their own intelligence and knowledge. This is what matters, not whether the staff have published one or 101 books.

A fundamentally important question is, are the staff there? Does the public realise how little time many lecturers and professors actually spend in their universities? Short 10- week terms have been whittled away by the recent development of the 'reading week'.

Absolutely no teaching happens during that week (which sometimes becomes a 'reading fortnight'). In the other weeks, are lecturers there five days a week? Of course not. Most arrange their teaching schedules so they come in for only two or three days a week. Consequently, if they are ill, at a funeral, their car has broken down, their children have flu, or they are snowed in, half a week's work may be scratched out in one day.

Shouldn't three long vacations be enough for research, leaving term times to develop the students into the flexible, highly skilled people the CBI requires? What other type of employment pays its staff a full-time wage to stay at home and read a good book, or write a bad one?

Where and how will the extra students live? Do we really want to double the numbers of young people living on tiny grants eked out with loans and overdrafts? Most university towns have terrible accommodation problems already - some students have to spend their whole grant and loan on housing of an appallingly low standard.

The skills developed by students facing poverty, debts and housing problems - where to buy the cheapest vegetables and how to fiddle the electricity meter, for example - are not generally those sought by employers who want future employees to develop their logical thought processes, critical analysis and report writing skills.

So the CBI report leaps to the wrong conclusion. Employers are absolutely right to say that we will need flexible highly skilled people - the OECD report also emphasised this vital fact. But we won't achieve this by doubling the problems in our universities, which are in an advanced state of rot because of the apathy and absenteeism of so many academics.

Instead, the CBI should be calling for immediate improvements in university teaching to develop students instead of leaving them in their squalid homes, unnoticed and unknown by their absent lecturers.

*'Thinking Ahead: Ensuring the Expansion of Higher Education into the 21st Century.'

(Photograph omitted)