14 April 2008

Taught half as much! Taught twice as well?

I despair of universities. Today I went to get a staff card, my old one having expired, and was told that I couldn't be given one because my old one had expired. Yes, you read that correctly: because I need a card, I can't be given one.

Try not to sprain your brain wrestling with this. I shall need to discuss this with Personnel, I think.

In fact, I don't just despair of universities; I despair for them. Student Direct is running a fascinating story about how little teaching Manchester students tend to receive, and how unfavourably it compares with the situation in the University twenty years ago. It's worrying stuff, both in terms of what it revals about Manchester and about what it suggests about higher education in Britain as a whole.

It seems that Student Direct complained to the University's president last year, saying that teaching hours in the University had plummeted; Alan Gilbert apparently challenged the paper to prove this, and using that marvellously liberating tool that is the Freedom of Information Act they were able to do so, leaving the president 'stunned' and 'momentarily lost for words'.

Student Direct describes students having just four or five hours of teaching a week, clocking up just 120 or even 86 teaching hours over the course of a year, whereas twenty years ago they'd have had roughly double that amount of teaching, on balance.

I think the article would gain from a hefty chart showing how the emphasis has shifted away from teaching over the past twenty years, with figures for each subject clearly laid out, and maybe with case studies and such, but even as it stands, sans the help of Excel, this is potentially huge.

Granted, the article doesn't say anything of how Manchester compares with other universities in Britain and abroad in this respect, which I think needs consideration. Despite this, though, that teaching at Manchester suffers in contrast to research seems clear if you study the university guides published by The Guardian and The Times; the former ranks Manchester as the sixteenth-best university in Britain, whereas the latter ranks it as only twenty-ninth in Britain! These rankings may seem absurd when contrasted with the University's far more credible showings in the QS World University Rankings -- seventh in Britain and thirtieth in the world -- and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Ranking which places it fifth in Britain and forty-eighth in the world, but the latter league tables emphasise research rather than teaching. It seems clear that in the surveys that rank universities in terms of what they offer students, Manchester doesn't do as well as it should.

That's part of where the 2015 Agenda, laudable though it is in so many ways, falls down. There is only so much money to go round, after all, and the University clearly thinks the best way to spend it is on high-profile figures who will in turn attract other eminent individuals -- the aim being to make Manchester one of the world's top twenty-five research-led universities by 2015. All very well, but if that's where the money's going then it's hardly going on teaching, is it?

And while people might argue that this'll mean better teaching -- and better students -- in the future, should the students of today really be asked to pay for the students of tomorrow? Is it the role of the University to teach the students it's got or to pick the students it wants?

Martin Stevens, who taught poetry in Manchester a few years ago and is now the High Master of St Pauls School in London, gave no quarter a couple of months back when damning the paucity of the University's teaching:
The university is so locked into getting in big name researchers and doing as much research as possible that students come far, far down the food chain. Students are so far down the food chain they are in danger of starving to death. . .

This is the philosophy of unintended consequences. By focusing the funding of universities on research, it has forced universities to take their eye off young people even more.
To make that a little bit more tangible, remember Martin Amis? Martin earns £80,000 a year in the University of Manchester, and teaches for just twenty-eight hours during that year; in short, by the only yardstick we can use, he's paid £2857.14 for every hour he teaches, a rather more impressive sum than the £20 to £50 an hour that most visiting lecturers reportedly earn. Well, applying a similarly crude yardstick, there are second year history students who pay £3,070 a year in fees and yet are taught for just four hours a week, which works out at £28.43 per hour.

Granted, you can prove anything with facts, but it does rather appear that on an hour-by-hour basis it takes a hundred students to pay for Martin Amis, whereas it takes only a couple to pay for, say, Terry Eagleton.

Granted, Manchester prides itself on encouraging independent learning among its students, but I've heard plenty of people grumbling over the years that this tends to work out as simply an attempt to provide education on the cheap; I've heard medics in particular complaining that the much-vaunted 'problem-based learning', so central to the Manchester medic experience, is a joke, and the figures might bear this out.

It's all very well to say that higher level teaching is about quality rather than quantity, but that rather loses its potency as an argument when you crunch through the workload figures for British universities and then place those figures side by side with the university league tables that focus on what students get out of their university education.

Try it. If you torture the data long enough it'll tell you anything.

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