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The University System Is Broken: Here’s How to Fix It

Education spreads knowledge; it broadens minds; it improves productivity. Higher education has exploded in recent years – whether it is “worth it” in an economic sense for all these people to go to university is unclear (would it be more efficient for most people to be trained on the job?). But if it is to be worth it, then students’ university educations must be as good as possible. Unfortunately, the fact is that millions of people are attending universities to get educated and nobody cares what that education is like.

The LSE is world-famous, wealthy, and highly respected (as we are all quick to tell our friends at King’s). But in the most recent student survey, it was ranked bottom in the UK for student satisfaction. Despite its impressive list of Nobel laureates and other brilliant academics who have worked or currently work there, its students are regularly dissatisfied with their experience there.

This should leave the LSE scratching its head, wondering how to boost student satisfaction. Clearly, something is going wrong with their teaching. Worryingly, though, the LSE have no reason to care that it is so low.

Despite the LSE’s dismal student satisfaction, league tables rank it amongst the top few universities in the UK. Prospective students are left with a confusing picture: graduates seem to often dislike their experience, even though it is apparently the third-best university in the country.

Why is this the case? The answer is in the bizarre ways universities are judged, which are terrible proxies for the standard of education they provide. The Complete University Guide’s overall university rankings is a weighted average of “entry standards”, “student satisfaction”, “research assessment”, “research intensity”, “graduate prospects”, “student-staff ratio”, “academic services spend”, “facilities spend”, “good honours” and “degree completion”. Notice how none of these measures directly measure teaching quality.

Some of the components measure the quality of students (entry standards, graduate prospects, degree completion); good honours is entirely decided by the universities (as monopoly suppliers of their degrees, they can set how many “good honours” are given out); research assessment and intensity have nothing whatsoever to do with teaching; student-staff ratio, academic services spend and facilities spend give no indication of the quality of universities’ teaching resources. The component closest to a measure of teaching quality is student satisfaction, which (after weighting is applied) makes up only one sixth of the overall score, and is a very poor indication of actual teaching quality.

The result: universities have very few incentives to improve their teaching. They care about research from top to bottom: the teaching staff want to be doing research (it’s how their careers are measured) and the directors want them to be doing research (it’s how their universities are ranked). Students’ learning is barely an issue. In a detailed report on teaching in higher education by Julian Rawel, a headteacher recounts experiences of students’ dissatisfaction after spending some time at university:

“What the students pick up is that what motivates the lecturer is not alwayswhat happens with the students in class but rather is research which is the basis of career progression.” 

This makes it clear that this problem is widespread – universities simply do not care about teaching enough.

If students go to university to learn, why do we not care how well they are learning? Why do we focus on things like research – which students are not a part of – rather than trying to actually measure the standard of teaching?

Universities are different institutions to high schools, sixth forms and colleges. They must teach in different ways to teach different skills. But this is no excuse for their often lackadaisical approach to teaching. Before university level, schools and teachers are constantly assessed on how well their students are learning. Teachers are accountable to headteachers, who are accountable to government inspectors (Ofsted). Universities, on the other hand, have no such requirement of accountability. There is no requirement for lecturers to be regularly observed or assessed. There is no universal assessment body.

To be clear: there are some fantastic teachers at universities, who really do care about students’ learning. But there is inadequate pressure to improve on those who do not. The reason for this is that universities do not need to have good teaching to do good research and be ranked highly.

Universities need to change: they should take more inspiration from the rest of the education sector and place learning as a much higher priority. Lecturers must be observed and assessed to ensure they are performing well. A universal body should be in place to measure the teaching quality of universities, and this information should carry a high weight in university rankings. In this way, bad lecturers would be forced to improve and league tables would start to reflect the things that university students care about (and that universities should care about). These are basic structures in all other forms of education – universities should not be exempt.

Is higher education “worth it”? That is a hard question to answer. What is clear is that the university system must begin to care more about the education its students are getting. If they don’t, the millions of people flocking to universities will be wasting their time. Education is a tool for progression and productivity; we need to use it in the best way we can.

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