Why students want their universities to do better

The body set up to sound out consumers is calling for lecturers to receive formal training and for all institutions to organise work placements.
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The Independent Online

More evidence about the failure of universities to meet the needs of students has come in the latest report from the National Student Forum, which says that teaching is simply not a high enough priority in many institutions. "It can sometimes feel as if some of my lecturers don't really take their teaching commitments seriously," says a forum member quoted in the report.

Moreover, students arrive at university thinking that they are going to be given the kind of help with study that they had at school. Then they discover that they are on their own. "I had no idea that I'd end up having to structure so much of my time myself and that I'd have to take so much more responsibility for my learning," says another forum member. "It's not that I mind, but it would have been useful to know beforehand so that I didn't waste so much of my time during the first year."

The report comes amid increasing concern about the experience that students get at university, whether they are taught well and given the help they need. A Commons select committee report earlier this year drew attention to shortcomings, and the Higher Education Policy Institute has asked questions about how little time students get with tutors and lecturers in British universities compared with those elsewhere in the world.

Now the student forum, made up of 20 people including undergraduates, postgraduates and the NUS president Wes Streeting, is making its contribution.

Maeve Sherlock, chair of the forum whose job is to tell the Government what it's like to be a student, called on all vice-chancellors to read the report. "It's not our job to be telling students what to do," she said. "However, we will only see everyday improvements for students if universities and colleges use our report to review their own arrangements."

One of the problems is that universities and schools operate in their own worlds. While there has been a huge push in schools to improve the quality of teaching, and to introduce what is called "personalised learning" to take account of students' differing needs and learning styles, the emphasis in universities remains on research. Funding structures, reputations and careers are forged largely upon research achievements, the report points out.

Although most members of the forum say they have been happy with their lecturers, they have experienced some lecturers who have not been very good teachers. In some cases, this may have been because they did not learn how to teach effectively. New teaching staff are supposed to be trained nowadays. But, the report says, "there is still a challenge in encouraging and supporting some mid-career staff who, perhaps, weren't required to undertake training."

Worse, perhaps, the report finds that sometimes lecturers can be difficult to contact and insufficiently available to help individual students. "It is often incredibly difficult to get hold of my lecturers," says one forum member. "Some fail to show up at their own appointed office hours and can be impossible to reach by phone or email."

The forum calls for all teaching staff to be encouraged to undertake formal training. It recommends that universities update course content regularly and make the structure of courses and modes of study more flexible.

This year, for the first time, it has looked at the use of technology in learning, which is becoming increasingly important, given that many more people are studying at unconventional hours and/or from home or work. Students are increasingly interested in how "technologically rich" a university or department is, says the report. At the moment, most universities tend not to advertise this information to prospective students. "But we now recognise the clear advantages to technology-enhanced learning and expect that, in future, students will want to know what they will have at their disposal," says the report. To ensure graduates are as employable as possible, it wants universities and colleges to promote work placements and set up dedicated work placement units. Some, but not all universities, already do this.

Although the forum says that postgraduates have a good experience of their study, it identifies three main problems. The university infrastructure has concentrated traditionally on undergraduates; academic support for postgraduates has been patchy; and postgraduates are academically and socially isolated. At present there is a lack of accessible information about the differences between postgraduate courses. PhD applicants also find it difficult to obtain information about long-term careers prospects after getting a doctorate.

Universities should give postgraduates user-friendly handbooks telling them what to expect.