So finally a university lecturer has had a go at students for not attending lectures. The highly regarded medieval historian Guy Halsall, who adorns the York history department, apparently let loose something of a rant that involved his expression of displeasure that too few students bothered turning up for his lectures. He posted his views online, on the university’s virtual learning system, telling students that they had missed the chance of hearing from one of the premier medieval historians in the world, to whom conferences pay large sums of money when he goes and guest lectures. Professor Halsall intimated that the vast sums of money being spent on a university education were being wasted.
He has a point, of course. The fees of £9,000 a year should be starting to focus students’ attention on the real value of university education. And while his comments may seem a little too self-regarding (although one could equally ask, why shouldn’t they?) they raise the thorny issue of just what university education is actually for.
In the great debate about school exams, we often hear media pundits and politicians suggest that it would be a rather good idea to get the input of university departments when constructing the secondary school curriculum and examinations system. Yet it seems that university departments have enough to do sorting out their own provision rather than being used as experts for an age group they don’t teach or deal with. The imposition of high tuition fees has focused attention on what universities are actually providing for their undergraduate students. The feedback from numerous recent undergraduates is less than inspiring. I hear plenty of tales of poor lecturers, seminars being given by graduate students and irregular and superficial essay supervision. On the arts side, the contact time between student and lecturer is minimal, often amounting to a total of just six hours a week (split between several lecturers) for students. This usually includes three or four hours of lectures to large audiences, so the small group sessions may be a mere one or two hours a week. The only exceptions are Oxford and Cambridge, who at least provide weekly tutorial or supervision sessions of one to one (or one to two) for their undergraduate students. Compare all of this with the much maligned secondary school system, where even an undemanding A-level system requires two or three hours of lesson delivery a day, and frequently more depending on timetable vagaries.
There were apparently some 11,000 unfilled university places in the last application cycle. For those places that were filled, it would be surprising if there weren’t more attention being paid to just how the universities fulfil their teaching mission.
Professor Halsall’s frustration is also an interesting reflection on the student regard for university education. For all of the violent protests against the imposition of fees, it seems that students still cannot be bothered to turn up to a lecture by an international authority in his field. If students really were bothered about their value for money, the least they would be doing would be attending the specific lectures and seminars laid on for them. Perhaps, after all, the fact that such fees won’t be paid until well into their working life has engendered a sense of ennui towards their academic studies? Perhaps too the universities should stop putting lectures online and demand physical attendance instead, much as the school system does? Are they worried that such demands might reduce even further the number of students who survive to graduate at the end of a third year?
We clearly haven’t got the university system right. The teaching in too many is abysmal and the reaction from students seems to be to limit their exposure to it as much as possible, whilst happily committing themselves to their eventual £27,000 pay back. Outside Oxford and Cambridge, it is rare to hear of students extolling the virtues of their academic studies. More is learnt in the clubs and the bars than in the lecture halls. We may wonder indeed just what the virtue of a university education is. Perhaps instead of constantly sniping at secondary schools, who are at least delivering education to the nation’s under-18s on a daily basis, it would also be worth reviewing the set-up of the education that the state expects to be provided after 18. It would save an awful lot of money if we finally regarded it as being unnecessary.