Some of the country’s most elite private schools are receiving complaints from their students who’ve gone on to university about the standard of teaching they experience in their first year of higher education. The issue was raised by the schools’ heads at the recent annual meeting of the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC). The heads argue that some lecturers are stuck in the past and continue merely to set essays and offer occasional one-to-one tutorials. Students are not properly engaged by these practices.
But it’s not just pupils of independent school who are finding problems: a survey of 15,000 undergraduates published in 2014 by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy found that nearly a third (31%) of undergraduates surveyed said they would definitely or maybe have chosen another course if they were to have their time again.
The culture has changed in recent years when it comes to students’ attitudes towards their tuition, egged on by the introduction, two years ago, of higher fees and a feeling among students that they should get what they pay for. It is interesting that students in Scotland generally think they are getting good value for money but of those in England – who are paying much more – one in three feel they are getting poor value. This figure is nearly twice as high as before the £9,000 fees were introduced.
Comparing school with university
William Richardson, general secretary of the HMC, reports students are “regularly very critical of what they get in university in comparison with school. We are trying to work with vice-chancellors on this in a co-operative way.” One such way of encouraging lecturers to upgrade their teaching skills is to arrange joint sessions between sixth-form teachers, to share best practice and with activities to help lecturers get the best out of teenagers. This might be a difficult sell – if you’ve achieved the status of a university lecturer, will you want to be told how to do your job? It depends on whether the universities themselves get behind the project and encourage participation.
However, as Professor Stephanie Marshall, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Academy, says: “Student engagement is key and support at all levels is vital.” She believes that, even where students in the survey admit they weren’t putting in enough effort themselves, “We all have a responsibility to help students to achieve their goals.”
“We can do this through involving them as much as possible in their learning and teaching – from the design of courses, to supporting independent learning, to exploring different teaching techniques. We also need to support those who teach them through encouraging professional development.”
When asked about their top three priorities for institutional expenditure, nearly half of undergraduates surveyed chose the option of ‘reducing fee levels’. The next most popular priorities were more teaching hours (35%) and smaller class sizes (35%). The survey shows the majority of students find they benefit from small class sizes or one-to-one tuition that universities can offer, compared with school classes. Close behind were better training for lecturers (34%) and better learning facilities (34%). Few (7%) were keen on giving academics more time for research – and it is perhaps the strong focus on the importance of research in the standing of universities that has been one of the distractors from encouraging lecturers to keep their teaching skills up to date.
Whether or not they take up the HMC’s offer of working together, it is clear the HE institutions need to recognise that today’s teenagers are not always being served well by current university teaching methods.