The Business of University

Walking into my practical class last week I overheard a conversation between student and tutor. The student was asking for his grade to be changed on an assessment which had been done in the practical the previous week. Our tutor hummed and harred for 5 minutes before agreeing to take a look at the assessment. By the end of the practical the student had a 20% increase in his assessment grade. This isn’t a localised case; nationwide students are using their unions and taking legal action to push for a change in their grades. And it’s working.

Have students gone mad, pressured by society and the current job market? Possibly, although it is more likely that universities have become a bit lazy when it comes to giving students the contact time and feedback that they need. After all, if students felt that they were getting value for money and receiving the attention they deserve perhaps they would not feel the need to call in the lawyers. It seems universities would rather improve the grades they give than the teaching quality. The better grades their students achieve and the more satisfied they are with their university career, the more students the university is likely to attract the following year and so the more money they will receive. A recent report states that universities now serve 40-50 % of the population compared to 5-7% in the 1960s, even more surprising is that somehow, despite an overwhelming increase in students, the number who leave with top grades has increased by up to 3 times since the 1970s. Either there has been a vast improvement in the population’s intelligence or something has changed within universities.

This report has also suggested that there is a large amount of corruption and fraud within universities from both students and staff. Plagiarism in student work and acceptance of plagiarism by universities, making the syllabus easier to increase grade profiles, encouraging staff to be more generous with marking, manipulating students into giving good reports of the university so as “not to tarnish the brand which they have bought into”, “window-dressing” for inspections and bribery of student unions in order to keep up the appearance of student satisfaction have all been reported. Corruption and fraud is rife in these institutions and it appears that our universities do not care as long as their two main priorities, money and research, are being fulfilled.

Over the past week, examples of poor ethical standards have cropped up in my own university- my lecturer twice yesterday tried to bully the class into buying a book he had written, saying it would vastly improve our education on the subject and could give us a discount if we coughed up by the end of the week. A friend of mine had a meeting with her director of studies in the first week of term, his last words to her were “if you have any problems do not come and see me. Email me and I will try to get back to you. See you next year.”  DOS’s (director of studies) are appointed by the university to help students through their year of studies and give advice on their careers.

Of course, some lecturers are excellent and really inspire the class and many directors of studies are very helpful with work and career choices, but too many slip through the cracks, putting as little time and effort into student contact time as possible. I recently interviewed a graduate of Loughborough University and feelings of dissatisfaction were clear: “University was not value for money; it is too easy for lecturers to just stand there and talk and not actually care about what the students are learning- some were good but had really old material”.  Lecturers appear to be hired based on their research credentials and are allowed to think of lectures as a secondary priority. This should not be the case. Income from students is more and more becoming a major contribution to university funding especially in recent years where government funding is waning. This leads to many universities giving prevalence to foreign students and post graduates who pay vastly inflated fees. A report in the Daily Telegraph shamed Birmingham University who were found to be encouraging admittance staff to allow a greater proportion of post graduates into their university even if it was likely that they would not be able to cope with the work load given.

Universities are meant to be an institution where knowledge is harvested and shared. Instead they have become businesses, mass producing students.  This doesn’t teach hard work and honesty but breeds an “every man for himself mentality”.