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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

On Teaching in a University

While saying he doesn't want to pre-empt the conclusions of the Browne report on student fees, Universities minister David Willetts has...er...pre-empted the Browne report in an interview with the Guardian and given a clear indication of what government policy is likely to be. His choice of words is a little unfortunate; the costs of student's degree courses are, he is quoted as saying, a "burden on the taxpayer that had to be tackled" and will no doubt come back to haunt him. Though the formulation is poor he is basically right. If we want a mass system of higher education then somebody has to pay for it. That somebody will be Joe Public through general taxation  and the people that accrue a private benefit from it - the students themselves. The only serious arguments are about the  proportion of the price to be  paid by each source,  the most efficacious way of getting the money into the coffers of the universities who need the money today and the consequences of the price and payment mechanism for any social equity objectives we might value. Of course that still leaves us a lot to disagree about. For what it is worth Willetts is one of the few Conservatives that I have some time for. In my view he's hitched his wagon to the wrong party, but he is smart and unlike most politicians is genuinely interested in forming policy on the basis of evidence. Universities could be in much worse hands.
That however is not what I want to blog about. It is possible, even probable, that part of of the rhetoric of the new fees regime will be endless talk about the importance of teaching. After all if students are asked to pay more,  what is more natural than to appear to offer them more in return. Now I am going to say something that will probably upset quite a few people: university lecturers are not teachers - at least not in the sense that secondary school teachers are teachers - and should not be treated as such.
Let me try to explain. I'm not saying that the student learning experience is unimportant or should be ignored. On the contrary student learning is a very important part of what universities are about and is in danger of being pushed to the sidelines by our research output fixated culture. However one can believe this without eliding the difference between a lecturer and a teacher. It's easy to make that sound like a quibble about words, but here I line up with the discourse analysts and want to maintain that the words you choose  create an implicit frame for the conversation, a frame that legitimises some arguments and rules others out of court. 
Students come to university to learn a subject. Periodically their knowledge of that subject is evaluated. It is their responsibility to prepare themselves for those evaluations, whether these be coursework, practicals, traditional examinations or whatever. Universities provide the resources that facilitate learning and preparation for evaluation. These resources come in different forms: libraries, software, reading lists, casual conversations with peers in the refrectory, intense debates in the dorms until 2.00 in the morning (does that happen any more?) and, yes, tutorials, seminars and lectures. My point is that the latter three are only part of the learning opportunities that a genuine university makes available. They are, if you like, the visible part of the iceberg, but if you think they are the whole thing then you don't understand what a university is, or how to get the most out of it.
It was clear to me before I went to university that the responsibility for learning and passing examinations was mine and mine alone. As long as I had a reading list and some past exam papers I could figure the rest out for myself. I didn't want to be told in detail what to do. I went to lectures and seminars that I found interesting and helpful and skipped those that I didn't get anything out of. I quickly realised that an hour of reading a text in the library could be of more value to me than an hour of somebody attempting to tell me what a text contained. Whether it was, depended on who that somebody was and what they had to say. Of course I made some mistakes. Spending a  substantial part of my second year ignoring the syllabus and reading a large number of books either about Marxism or written from a Marxist perspective was, in retrospect, probably not so smart. But an important part of knowing now - in fact at the end of my second year - what I didn't know then - that Marxism  is an intellectual dead-end for the social sciences - could only have come from having the freedom to do that. It meant my conclusion wasn't just a superficial opinion but something built on a large amount of study and reflection. Luckily I  picked up enough incidental knowledge of the things that were actually on the syllabus so that I could pass the end of year examinations. Looking back, what is most striking is that I never, as a student, thought that lectures and seminars were especially important for my learning. They were just one more resource to be used if and when useful.
So Mr Willetts there is more to student learning than just teaching and please remember: I'm a lecturer, not a teacher.

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