I can’t get no satisfaction, and UCL doesn’t care

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I can’t get no satisfaction, and UCL doesn’t care

Beth Perkin discusses the discrepancy between global reputation and student satisfaction

For a university that was last year ranked among the top five academic institutions in the world, it seems rather puzzling that in the UK alone UCL doesn’t even manage to make it into the top 20 for student satisfaction. This year’s National Student Survey revealed that almost a fifth of UCL students are not satisfied with their course, while 40% were not happy with feedback.

But why is there such a discrepancy? Is it down to location? Does the fact that UCL is in London, where accommodation and the cost of living can be over double that of other UK cities explain such low satisfaction figures? Or maybe it’s the highly politicized atmosphere of the city as a whole that makes students more ready to criticise their university experience than someone in an insular campus environment like Exeter or Bath?

That may be part of it. But to get to the real crux of the problem, first it is important to look at the long accepted academic culture where research is prized above teaching.

“For years it was perfectly acceptable for lecturers to be open about regarding teaching as something that they just needed to get through.”

Speaking with a respected UCL academic, who wishes to remain anonymous, they described the pervading attitude across lecturers when they first started working at the university ten years ago:

“For years it was perfectly acceptable for lecturers to be open about regarding teaching as something that they just needed to get through. Some colleagues would go as far as saying ‘teaching was just like doing the washing up.’”

This was in large part down to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), an exercise undertaken every five years to evaluate the quality of research undertaken by British universities. The evaluation worked in that each university would get a ranking on which depended their research income. As a result, the importance of research was being asserted from the very bodies responsible for regulating these higher education institutions.

In this same vein, UCL’s former Provost, Malcom Grant, employed pragmatism in placing a strong focus on the importance of getting one-off research grants and research income in order to maximise the university’s revenue. Instilling this way of thinking from the top down legitimised such thinking and fitted in comfortably with those academic personalities whose top priority was their own research.

However, the government’s decision to remove controls on student numbers, combined with the freezing of research funding, has the potential to radically change the priorities of UK universities.

“Like all organisations, universities reply to the financial incentives of the structures they are imbedded in. It is therefore in their strategic and financial interests to take undergraduates seriously.”

So, a move towards making student satisfaction a top priority is looking like a serious possibility. But what does student satisfaction actually mean?

Talking with Finn Corrigan, a School of Slavonic and East European Studies first year, who has not so coincidentally decided to change courses next year, it became apparent that the main cause of low satisfaction was a lack of individual contact: “For the economics modules, the whole course was taught via textbooks. There wasn’t much help available so you were essentially teaching yourself the whole course. He said, “It kind of reminds me of Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon outsmarts the posh Harvard guy. He says you’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars of your dad’s money for an education you can get for free in a public library!”

“you’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars of your dad’s money for an education you can get for free in a public library!”

In contrast, UCL’s English Literature course reports the highest student satisfaction, and unsurprisingly gives students the most individual tutorial time. As an English student myself, meeting regularly with my tutor meant that I was able to improve my essay scores by 10 marks over the year and build a relationship with my tutor where I could come to them with any worries, academic or otherwise. This one on one teaching gives me a support system that is so important throughout my university career.

Unfortunately, this individualised teaching is not characteristic of UCL as a whole. The university is a largely decentralized institution.

So how do we tackle the problem of the faceless lecturer? “My answer would be an emphasis on teaching, on more individual contact across students, and much smaller classes.” The anonymous source said “That, for me, is much more important than contact hours.”

“Halving seminar classes would have been a much better idea. It’s not about the number of hours, but the quality and intensity of them.”

This point of view holds a lot of weight in light of Manchester University’s decision, in the face of criticism, to increase all two hour seminars to three. Unsurprisingly, students were left feeling just as dissatisfied. “Halving seminar classes would have been a much better idea. It’s not about the number of hours, but the quality and intensity of them.”

On top of that, it seems ridiculous that there is no external regulation on teaching in UK universities, a kind of Ofsted equivalent for higher education institutions. Asking Vice Provost Anthony Smith about how UCL regulates its teaching, he said “We have several processes in place. Already all of which include student representation.”

The Vice Provost proceeded to reel off a list of such processes; among them were the Academic Committee, the Student Experience Forum and the Quality Management and Enhancement Committee. But are these numerous internal regulation processes actually working? When asked about whether outside regulation was necessary, Smith said “universities are autonomous organisations and not subject to external regulation.”

The question to ask now, though, is: should they be? If a lecturer can effectively be a bad teacher and get away with it without any consequences are students really getting the education they deserve?

As for student satisfaction, Smith said “The basis for a great student experience has to be the quality of education and that is in large part due to having really outstanding staff – both those directly involved in teaching and those who support students in their learning.”

in Smith’s long and short-term goals for improving student satisfaction at UCL, there was nothing to actually deal with the common demand for more intense individual contact.

That may be, but in Smith’s long and short-term goals for improving student satisfaction at UCL, there was nothing proposed to directly better it. Sure, there were proposals for lecturer training and the building of new libraries, but nothing to actually deal with the common demand for more intense individual contact. This is what really improves student experience, and UCL is doing nothing about it.

 

Featured Image credit: 9MM PR

I can’t get no satisfaction, and UCL doesn’t care Reviewed by on October 13, 2014 .

Beth Perkin discusses the discrepancy between global reputation and student satisfaction

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3 COMMENTS

  • Lina

    It comes as no surprise that students are not satisfied with UCL. I myself attended the School of Slavonic and East European Studies – many teachers were rude, arrogant and we barely learnt anything in certain classes. On top of it all, I paid quite a lot for my Master’s which now feels like I have paid only for the university’s reputation, not it’s quality of teaching.

  • Baljit

    This article rings true on so many levels. Im currently half way through my MSc in Clinical Neuroscience paying £12,500 for a substandard level of education. Lecture resources are not provided until AFTER exams, the exams themselves have had multiple questions removed after students complained that they were from another module or made no sense despite a “robust” checking process. This is to be expected though, when your course leader is not a clinician nor a neuroscientist but a psychologist. Around 11% of all my teaching has been cancelled and never rescheduled, not even an apology was issued. The course is not clinical at all and we have yet to be faced with a clinical case in exam. The course itself would not be hard if the examination reflected what we learned even in the slightest. Unfortunately tutors just examine you on their research rather than the topic itself, they seem to like the sound of their own names.
    In looking for research projects, which you are made to publicly beg for, I was told to look into other universities! Upon sending one email to a colleague to loosely enquire, I was told “a significant amount of work” had been put into helping me.
    If you think your work will be read, think again, tutors flick though and scribble a general number on essays and this varies from tutor to tutor. Some are notorious for never giving more than 59% regardless of industry professionals that have rated your work as “excellent” or “outstanding”.
    As soon as fees have been paid, you will be ignored. It will be the most expensive certificate and the most demoralising experience of your life. Many (previously 1st class honours) students are taking anti depressant and anti anxiety medication in order to prevent hurting themselves or having a panic attack just to finish with a pass, not even a merit let alone a distinction.

    Please avoid this course and university like the plague. KCL, Imperial and QMUL are far better institutions in terms of fees, value for money, student support and they appear to have the same rules for all students regardless of how wealthy their father is.

  • Anonymous

    I definitely agree. Currently I am doing MSc Cancer course at UCL. It is pretty obvious that the university is treating this course as a means of making money of students. The tuition fees (£13000) do not reflect the quality of teaching at all. The course is not even intense. All of the modules that we have had so far could have been compacted into 3-4 months and the rest of the time could have been spent on lab time for our dissertation module. It is notorious that lecturers do not show up at all, without any apologies issued. If their lectures are rescheduled, it is not unheard of that they either come in late or again do not show up. And statistically, you are more likely to die of brain tumour in your 20’s (which is very very unlikely event 🙂 than receive any constructive feedback on your work. For the majority of the studies we dis not have any lectures on the campus, but in a building og Tottenham Court Road, so you fo not feel like you are even attending UCL. The staff in this building used to treat us like kids and we were made feel unwelcome. Luckily, due to the efforts of the courae reps and administrators this has changed.
    Please, spare yourself the effort and money of studying at UCL. Smaller, less known universities will provide you with much better quality of teaching for far less money. UCL – ‘we charge so much just because we can’.

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