Knock-Down University

The Guardian today has a report about a ‘no frills university college’ which will start recruiting this week.

Coventry University College offers degrees for £4800, with teaching going on for 42 weeks a year, 7 days a week, 7am to 10pm on weekdays. Courses are vocational, such as accounting or marketing, and are designed to fit around working lives.

I agree that an offer like this should be available: people will increasingly want to ‘top up’ their education during their lives, and that should be considered a thoroughly good thing. It’s what FE colleges used to do very well….

But let’s not kid ourselves that this is a university education. The clue is in the details:

It is an offshoot of Coventry University, but students at the new institution will not have access to the university’s library, IT or sporting facilities.

Here is what pro-VC of Coventry University thinks about it:

“Students won’t have access to all the social side of the university,” Dunn said.  “It will just be about learning and teaching.”

And herein lies the crux of the matter. The library and IT are merely ‘the social side of the University’, then? It is typical of the current state of university administration that anybody who thinks like this could ever become a pro-Vice Chancellor.

The fundamental question here is what getting a university degree means, and how it differs from school.

Increasingly, we see an obsession with ‘contact hours’.  Coventry University College of course fully pays into this and gives a contact hour guarantee.

Students will be guaranteed 20 hours of “contact time” a week, 18 hours of tuition in a group of 25 and two hours in a group of five.

Parents in particular, but increasingly also students, think that what matters is how many hours students get in the same room as a teacher. In recent years, when universities were incentivised by Research Assessment to prioritise research over teaching, mistakes have surely been made in this area, but the idea that the quality of a university degree course can be measured by formal contact hours is a dangerous fallacy.  If we think like that, we condemn students to sit through another three years of school, and that, frankly, would be a waste of time. University is different, and has to be different, because it has different aims.

Some of the best Oxford degree courses have all of two compulsory contact hours a week – what counts is the intensive method used (tutorials) and the facilities available – a range of lectures and seminars for those who want to go to these, and most of all, the excellent libraries and an atmosphere where learning and academic endeavour is valued.

For what really counts in university education is teaching students how to think independently. How is this going to happen if we increase the time when they sit and listen to somebody else’s thoughts? Lectures and seminars are important – but in the end, you learn by doing, and that means sitting in the library, discovering new material for yourself, and thinking about it in a critical manner.

What matters a lot more than formal contact time is the accessibility of academics, so that students can talk to them and get help, advice and answers when they need them.

In the end, the Coventry University College model really deserves itno-frills price. A set-up like this will not allow for teaching by research-active academics: it’ll be tutors on low rates, paid by the hour, who won’t have time for research and certainly won’t have paid research time. These will be young academics who are soon in a dead-end situation, since their CVs will never catch up with those of the few privileged post-docs whose research time is funded.

Moreover, a model which values contact hours over all and sees libraries as part of a superfluous social life doesn’t seem to have much room for independent thinking.

Students will pay a knock-down price, they will get useful training, no doubt – but what they are paying for isn’t university in any reasonable definition.


Edited to add:

Thanks to Dr. Polly Low for this discovery at Coventry’s website:

We have total confidence in our teaching standards, in fact, we offer a guaranteed pass to you if you follow our recommended route through your study for professional awards – and if you don’t we’ll pay for you to have another go.

I can’t say that I share that confidence.

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