4.5 How important is success to each student?

If you are teaching in a university which charges significant fees directly to every student (that is, not Scotland or Germany, for instance) then you will be increasingly concerned with student attitudes to value for money and the buying of degrees. Of course every student (and every funder of universities) should expect good value for money. Setting aside any governmental concerns, there are three key issues relating to students: Does the quest for funding and/or the extent of debt have a differential impact on different students? Do your students understand both the true cost of their education and what constitutes educational value for money?  Are there students for whom a lower level of success than they expect can be a personal disaster?  The answers are very likely to be Yes, No and Yes. We can do little except recognize the first issue, and prepare ourselves for social and moral pressures relating to the third. (There can be few engineering staff who have been teaching for more than five years who have not had tearful students assert that they ‘cannot’ go home with the – disappointing – award they have earned. I hope that there are none who have bowed to this pressure and relaxed their standards.)

The value for money issue is worth exploring further. It is very difficult to explain to students the actual cost of their education. (It is actually rather difficult to determine: The Royal Academy of Engineering’s report ‘Engineering Graduates for Industry’ (2010) tried but was only partially successful. Somewhere around £15k per student per year seems to be a reasonable estimate in the UK in 2013.) A student can focus on the perceived personal fee cost of £9000 per year (in England in 2012-2014) but every student I have spoken to on the issue cannot relate this to the cost of providing a lecturer-hour!  The ‘value’ side of the value-for-money algorithm is also difficult to quantify. We hear that the possession of a degree is worth an increment of more than £100k on lifetime income but this is highly variable depending on the graduate’s choice of (and success in) career. How might the student put a value on being well educated, on having more life options, or on simply getting a job in economic circumstances when less fortunate students are unemployed? What value might one put on the pleasure and fun of mastering engineering? Nevertheless while I despair of putting a figure to the value for money (VFM) of an engineering degree, individual students will have considered their own position and will have assigned a value to their study/work/life balance. We, the teachers, can be sure that there will be a wide range of perceptions in our classes. Perhaps one of our duties is to explain (repeatedly) over the course of the student’s programme the intrinsic value of an education in a quantitative discipline.

The most serious aspect of the perceived cost of a degree is in altering the attitudes of students to their rights, or more accurately, their perceived rights. Under a direct fee regime, education is no longer a free good. Some students will take the view that their payment gives them the right to a degree, others that it justifies their treating staff as hirelings for whom they have pre-paid. Most of my readers will be familiar with the symptoms: Emails along the lines ‘Hi – send me the lecture notes again’ or ‘you were not in your office yesterday’. My most shocking anecdote is of a student who was challenged recently by a colleague and asked to stop talking during a lecture. When he refused my colleague asked him to leave, in order that the other students could benefit from the lecture. The student’s reply was ‘f*** off – I’ve paid for this!’. I am glad to report that my colleague held his ground and the student eventually left, but I am disappointed and saddened that the incident happened at all.

A strong anti-plagiarism culture has developed in academia over the last ten years, facilitated by the availability of software which detects (some) plagiarism. Most universities now ask students to attest that work which is submitted for assessment is their own, and that they understand that plagiarism is not permitted. However life is not this simple. Hidden behind this general British disgust at the theft of another’s work or ideas are several other issues. A few of these are discussed in the following paragraph:

We actually want students to discover and use the work of others, and this is a skill which will be extremely useful in subsequent employment or research. We therefore tend to demand attribution – so that the student acknowledges the source of the information, idea or opinion. Even most ‘open’ resources (e.g. under Creative Commons licensing) demand attribution so that the author gets some credit. So far so good. But how much material should be harvested in this way? Here the behaviour we expect from a student is different from that which would be expected by an employer. An employer would be concerned at being protected from lawsuits relating to IPR, whereas academics are generally interested in the demonstration of understanding by the student. Understanding is poorly evidenced (although of course it may be there) if a student selects chunks of writing from another author, however clearly attributed. We also have to deal with the cultural perception (very deeply embedded in some countries) that it is a fine and honourable thing to repeat back to a master (you!) his own words. It has to be our duty, therefore, to explain to students that we are trying to assess their understanding, and that we can only do this if they demonstrate this by using their own words. This may mean that their explanation is less elegant than that from which they learnt, but it is their own. Even the assessment of knowledge is difficult in a written exam or assignment. A colleague, last year, suspected a student of cheating in an exam when he had merely memorised two whole pages of description and reproduced it word for word in the exam (although it was not an accurate answer to the question). This certainly demonstrated a wonderful memory, but told us nothing about the student’s knowledge, let alone understanding. It was not cheating, but it was educationally useless.

The real answer to this is always to use oral examinations for the assessment of understanding, but I realise that in many circumstances this is impractical. We cannot just consider the curriculum from the student viewpoint. The society in which the university is embedded also brings its own values and priorities. Many of these mirror the students’ concerns but in addition any university must respond to the concerns of its funders, which almost always include government and/or state as well as the students themselves. Considerations of value for money and affordability are thus inevitable, as are responses to national quality regimes (such as the QAA and professional engineering bodies in the UK). In addition, university academic staff will usually have deeply-held views on the importance of their own discipline, and they will hold strong opinions about standards of scholarship within it. In many universities they will also aspire to undertake research which requires particular graduate skills, and will therefore be enthusiastic to create a curriculum which provides particular elements even if they will only be needed by a small minority of graduates.

So society in its broadest sense (the people both within and beyond the university) inevitably plays a key role in influencing the engineering curriculum. Engineering curricula are usually only changed infrequently, because of the complexity of the task. However since staff changes are often more frequent than wholesale curriculum changes, opportunities can be found for incremental change as long as someone retains an overview of the whole programme. Perhaps Programme Directors should have quite a lengthy term of office, to ensure that this important overview is not lost. (I recognise that this might not be popular advice among Programme Directors!)

End of Chapter 4 – please add a comment

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