I've Been a Lecturer for a Decade and This Is What I Really Think About University
"The massive increase in fees has woken students up to the fact that universities are taking the piss."
Photo: Arto Teras
This article was originally published as part of our "Is University Still Worth It?" week, but remains as relevant today, in February of 2018, following the news that Prime Minister Theresa May will announce an independent review of university fees and student finance, citing the fact that UK students face "one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world".
We asked a university lecturer to tell us what they really think about their course, their students and the way universities work. They did so on the condition of anonymity.
Mostly I teach undergrads, but I also supervise MA students too. Over the decade I've been teaching, I've taught at a number of colleges, including some of those widely considered to be among the best on the planet. All seem to be run by people who share a callous disregard for at least some of their students, and the actual utility of their courses in the real world.
Creative arts education needs to be way way better. So why have I been teaching for so long?
Economic necessity is part of it. Those who can't teach, as the old adage goes. Teaching on a zero-hours contract is better than a lot of other jobs I have subsidised my shoddy career with over the years.
But mostly because there's something holy about teaching. It's part Teaching to Transgress, wax on wax off, Dead Poets Society, Socrates, Tao of Wu and Obi Wan Kenobi. It's the chance to go, here are the bits of the map I wish I had earlier, son, smash shit up. Paid academia also works for the teacher, in that instructing others teaches you loads about what you do and being paid to research subjects you'd want to know is wonderful.
I do think allowing the system as a whole to tell thousands of schoolchildren to pay £27,000 and a further £30k debt for living costs, under the promise they can make a functional living out of being a fashion designer, an artist, a furniture designer, a stylist or whatever, is immoral. Having to supervise MA students whose lack of English makes any education moot just so they can be rinsed out of 25 grand kind of sucked, too.
Every university I've worked at seem to have a spectacularly cruel admissions policy: when a university offers a student a place, the student takes it as a sign of their suitability for that course and for that vocation. But when I speak to fellow teaching staff, and this is at every college I've ever worked at, they're always furious with the administration for having enrolled unqualified students in the pursuit of increased revenues. The administration doesn't have to console despondent and lost students. I'm the one who has to try and help these guys, and try to give life advice, but how am I qualified to do that? At the end of the day. I'd say the country would struggle to employ a 100 fashion writers a year, so why are there places for many multiples of that figure on fashion journalism courses? The universities aren't just offering too many places – too many universities are offering these courses. I'm a northerner myself, but I can't help but wonder how connected to the fashion world the staff at colleges such as Preston or Teeside are likely to be.
Education is too life-affirming, too much of a force for progress, too much of a engine for economic growth to carry on being a disappointment for so many students. Creative arts are a force for good, but do we really want so many graduates starting out lost, already burned, indebted and robbed of what is literally a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing opportunity by bureaucratic indifference?
One of the colleges I teach at claims nearly 50 percent of their income is spent on teaching, but doing the maths on the number of staff to students on any of the courses I've worked on, my guess is that 15 percent at the most seems more accurate.
Our hourly teaching rate seems great at first, until you realise colleges don't pay for marking or preparation. Sometimes it's almost impossible to do the amount of feedback the institutions and the students are looking for and not effectively be on minimum wage.
The last government's massive increase in fees has woken students up to the fact universities are taking the piss. The problem is that throughout history, teaching has worked on a teacher-knows-best basis, and the universities haven't even begun to think about what this new customer/seller relationship should really look like. There is an increasingly nervous and obsessive tracking of the Student SET scoring assessments of teaching staff, which is supposed to show which universities have the best teaching. But how do you tell a student, who is in effect grading you, where they're going wrong, or give them a shitty mark for shitty work?
Most universities also have a total disregard for the effects of the internet. Unsurprisingly, when universities are staffed by people who last worked outside of academia when dial-up was a thing, they have a dated outlook. Ask why lectures can't be broadcast or try to put social media or video at the centre of the curriculum and it's always "manyana, manyana".
This general institutional conservatism at colleges means that a lot of the time, I feel like I'm teaching a course that would have made sense 15 or 20 years ago, but is inadequate now. Universities, especially those peddling new degrees, need to get over their anxiety and create courses that better reflect the working world as it exists. Given that most arts subjects are essentially vocational, students are constantly comparing the content of their lectures to the advice and expert knowledge they find online, and career insights from the professionals they're following on social media. We have to be able to compete.
Universities really should focus more on the tutorials and seminars that are just too taxing to be given away for free online. They're the spaces in which a teacher gets to inspire and connect, to provoke, to guide, to bring into view new avenues and to identify and develop strengths. It's this sort personalised mentoring and one-on-one tutorials the web can't do. Yet some colleges I've worked at don't actually do them at all, or maybe once or twice a semester, for five minutes.
Unfortunately, the way that institutions award degrees is regulated in such a way that alternatives models are almost impossible to develop. We're teaching students – the future – in the past, because the old people are scared of the future. For the creative people who want change, that just won't do.
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