Philip Hensher: What students should learn about learning

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The Independent Online

The "consumer revolution" in universities continues apace, and tomorrow a paper will be published by Lord Mandelson setting out the detailed public information universities must provide.

The immediate inspiration for this is the forthcoming change in the funding of universities, including the possibility of a rise in top-up fees. It is thought that this rise, being lobbied for by universities, could only be contemplated in exchange for a detailed demonstration of value for money. Information to be published includes the earnings of students after completing each course. It will also state what the subject involves, the teaching and assessment methods, and how many hours of direct contact with staff the student can expect.

Some of this, any university will be doing in any case. At the university I teach at, Exeter, the contents of every module on every degree are publicly available on the internet, and prospective students, as well as enrolled ones, can get an idea of what is involved. A good university will have no trouble with openness, and shouldn't fear the extension which will demonstrate a degree's earning potential.

The point at which trouble is going to arise is, however, the question of "contact hours". This is a demand which is frequently made by students. Why aren't our days filled with classes like in sixth form? You're teachers – why aren't you teaching me more?

There is no doubt that some students, used to a highly directed curriculum at A-level, find the more open structure of university learning a real challenge. I certainly remember it being so. At Oxford, I think I had all of three hours a week direct contact, not including lectures (which in any case I never went to). The first week of my first term, we were told the name of an Anglo-Saxon primer and instructed to learn enough Anglo-Saxon by this time next week to translate a letter by Alfred. That was definitely a shock.

It would never have occurred to me that because the contact hours at Oxford were fairly minimal, that reflected on its quality as a university. I assumed, rather, that my highly distinguished tutors had better things to do than teach something by rote which I could perfectly well teach myself with a good book. And a student who, in his or her third year, is still saying that they need more face-to-face teaching may be one, in my experience, who is not quite sure of the way to the library. As the classicist Mary Beard has very truly said, "one of the consequences of the new-style sixth form curriculum is that students get the impression that they are only learning when they are being taught."

It's easy to imagine what the consequences of the government's effective demand for more "contact hours" will be; more direct teaching when there ought to be more encouragement for independent, unsupervised learning. It has been suggested at my university that we might introduce compulsory face-to-face meetings, twice a term, with all of our dozens of personal tutees just to check that things are still OK since the last time we saw them. For the vast majority of students, that would be a complete waste of their time and ours.

The fallacy of Lord Mandelson's revolution is the word "consumers". Students aren't consumers. They don't get a degree in exchange for their money, like a pair of shoes; they get an opportunity to learn. There are consumers in this, however; the students' ultimate employers. Nobody seems to be asking them what they think of the quality of a university's graduates. In some cases, you feel the government would be afraid to find out the answer.

Well worth the cost of a few sweets

Ding-dong! A small boy is at my door, in a wizard's costume over which hours have been spent. His proud mum is hovering on the pavement. "Trick or treat!" he yells, and I make a suitably frightened gesture and hand over the brown goods. "Now, do you want a trick?" he says, and we enter into a detailed philosophical discussion about whether it was a genuine choice he was offering me, or if I get a trick whether he gets the chocolate or not. Finally we agree that he can shout "Adavra Kedavra" while throwing some hexing powder – which I strongly suspect of being self-raising flour – at me.

We had lots of trick-or-treaters this weekend, all delightfully dressed, all very cheerful. A trio of pre-teenage witches, almost unable to get out the words for giggling, 10 kids from five to 15 as a motley array of ghosts, werewolves, and witches, as well as over-excited tinies with mum or dad, enjoying the unaccustomed thrill of ringing on doorbells and being given sacks of chocolate.

I really love this American import, unheard of in this country before the 1990s; in an inner London district, the outbreak of neighbourly friendship and the sound of excited chatter as kids decide whose turn it is to ring the doorbell is well worth the outlay of a few quid on sweets. I hear that those who stay inside and ignore the doorbell run the risk of having eggs thrown at their door. Killjoys like that probably deserve it.

Where exactly does football draw the line?

A footballer, Marlon King, has been convicted of actual bodily harm and sexually assaulting a young woman who refused his insistent advances in a nightclub.

He was out celebrating his wife's third pregnancy, and evidently proposed to top his celebrations by having sex with somebody else.

The chairman of his club, Wigan Athletic, struck a moral posture, of sorts, and said, "We will not tolerate footballers who get sent to jail for 18 months." A curious way to put it: could we conclude that Wigan would tolerate footballers who get sent to jail for, say, nine months?

It turns out the chairman meant exactly what he said. In the last nine years, King has been fined for two cases of theft and two of fraud, for drunk driving, for two cases of an assault on a woman and another for threatening behaviour – spitting – at a woman, for the use of a cloned credit card and finally, sent to prison for 18 months, reduced to nine, for the receipt of stolen goods.

All of these offences occurred before he was signed by Wigan Athletic. King's agent is continuing to insist that his latest conviction is unsafe, based on a case of "mistaken identity". No such excuse is available to Wigan Athletic, who should have known perfectly well the identity of the man they were proposing to reward with millions.

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