Since the beginning of this year a major theme has become apparent in our discussions about education – why are so many young people unhappy with their experiences of school and university? And what are we doing about it?
Last week we came across this in the Guardian:
Dissatisfied students want more contact time with teaching staff
The strapline to the article reads
Students would prefer lecturers to have teaching qualifications and industry experience
Isn’t this a statement of the obvious? Why wouldn’t students expect their lecturers to have proper teaching qualifications? What’s not to like about university staff having real life experience in industry or fields relevant to their students?
A survey of more than 15,000 full-time UK undergraduates found that on average students spent more time studying independently than they did with teaching staff, leaving some feeling unsatisfied with their experience of university.
The research, carried out by Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), found that students were less satisfied when they had fewer than 10 contact hours a week and class sizes of more than 50 students.
On average, students had 12 hours of contact time and 14 hours of independent study a week.
For many students the essence of learning is the time they spend with their peers and with academic staff constructively and socially engaged in dialogue and discussion – it’s a social and not just a personal activity. Admittedly there are also students who prefer to be on their own with their books and journals, with their laptops and their tablets – rather than engaged in discussion and debate. It’s surely a matter of balance – and for many students that balance is not on offer and is not being achieved.
“It’s important to note the relatively high numbers who do not feel supported in independent study,” said professor Stephanie Marshall, chief executive of HEA. “We know that the skills developed through independent study are important to employers and to lifelong learning. Providing guidance and structure outside timetabled sessions is key here.”
In other words, students need proper inputs from academics on how best to use their independent study time, and how to go about independent reading and researching. Students cannot and should not be left to their own devices (literally) on the assumption that they already have the necessary attitudes and study skills. Many do not – as a direct result of over-direction and teaching to the tests from Primary school onwards. We know from our own experience that children in Primary schools are very capable of directing their own creative and expansive learning when given suitable encouragement and support – but this happens in too few cases. More often than not we hear disaffected young people saying “just teach us what we need to know for the tests” – as if learning is meaningless and unnecessary unless it’s done for simple instrumental and utilitarian purposes. Where’s the love of learning for its own sake?
The survey also questioned students about their wellbeing and compared their responses with that of the general population. It found that students were less likely to regard their lives as worthwhile and were less happy than others, including those of a similar age group.
This is truly shocking. Previous generations of students look back on their days at university with incredible affection for a golden age of freedom, stress-free living and the excitement of becoming a rounded individual with boundless opportunities for developing a great breadth of knowledge and skills. What on earth has gone wrong? How can we now be failing these young people so badly? How can they not see their lives as worthwhile? Why do they feel such unhappiness?
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said universities should see support services, including counselling, as a priority.
He added that the removal of the students number controls in September this year could see more students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education, making support services for vulnerable students even more important.
Yet cuts combined with a huge increase in students using support services has left many university welfare teams overstretched and struggling to meet demand.
It’s almost beyond belief that this state of affairs exists. How much has been said and written about our schools’ curriculum for Personal, Social, Emotional, Spiritual, Cultural and Health education – which is supposed to promote wellbeing, resilience, self-reliance, positive attitudes, sound values and high levels of self confidence? How much of this learning actually takes place? And to what effect?
The truth is that we’re in a state of self-denial about these crucial aspects of learning. We pretend they’re happening, that they’re being organised and delivered by well-trained leading teachers, and that they’re effective. The reality is that it simply isn’t so.
We believe that people like Nicky Morgan and Tristram Hunt know very well the real situation and the reality of what takes place (or fails to happen) in schools. They’ve alluded to it in speeches. The question is – what do they (and what do we as a profession) intend to do about it?
This is a problem with a simple set of solutions. Let all schools and universities learn from the very best practise that is already taking place in these places of learning. Let them place a very high priority on training all teachers and support staff in student wellbeing and in meeting the personal and study needs of students across the entire curriculum. Listen to the students and their representatives – and act swiftly on their concerns.
And if we find that adequate funding is not available to support these urgent developments let’s ask why it’s lacking. As we’ve already said, there are schools and universities that have somehow seen a need and a way to deal with these issues. Let’s find out how they’ve done it and let’s make sure it happens everywhere.
We dedicate this post to all the wretched (in every sense of the word) bureaucrats (and their ilk) who see the “Standards Agenda” as the be-all and end-all of everything that happens in places of learning.