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.
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