We’ve come to expect less and less. Before we came to university most of us had perceptions which provoked images of ancient libraries, world class academics, the sense of an academic community and regular tutoring with a couple of fellow students. However, in the last decade I think it is fair to say that this utopian image of a university experience has been shattered.
Today’s students appreciate that they study in a larger student body with fewer resources to go round. But still, I think we expect too little and get too little from our learning experience at university. Students across Edinburgh are seeing reductions in teaching time, poor feedback on their work and, at universities like Edinburgh, a shift to research at the general expense of teaching.
Results from the National Student Survey this summer indicate that students think they’re getting a bad deal when it comes to contact time, feedback and general standards of teaching. None of the universities in the city got a resounding thumbs up and Edinburgh University performed particularly badly on giving feedback for work.
Looking at Edinburgh University in a bit more detail it is easy to see where the problem arises. After being involved in student representation for a while now and having been in this job for a couple of months, I think that the University of Edinburgh is in danger of forgetting its responsibility to deliver decent teaching by letting its ambitions stray elsewhere. Edinburgh University is drifting down a dangerous path of focussing on research – and the big bucks behind it – to the detriment of teaching and providing students with value for money.
Obviously this isn’t a view taken by staff in most of Edinburgh's universities. They will say, “research students make the best teaching staff” and “you can’t have decent, informed teaching without up to date researchers” and in theory they are right. But the reality is often very different. Students at the University of Edinburgh now find they have too few contact hours and the ones that they do have aren’t well organised enough because their lecturers are off working on their research projects and don’t have enough time to develop good and up to date materials and presentations.
And it isn’t really a surprise that students haven’t felt engaged to campaign for improvements in their courses. The schemes and programmes that have sought to rectify some of these problems have suffered from the use of possibly the most boring and meaningless terminology. For example, the term "quality" has been thrown around so much it has lost any significant meaning to those who started asking for it in the first place.
So what can students do about it? Improving the quality of students' academic experiences at university is the primary focus of student politics and is one of the key roles of your Students’ Association and class reps. This year Edinburgh University Students’ Association managed to secure extensions in library opening hours across the board and get a full review of course feedback. Poor teaching and a bad learning experience will materially effect the future careers of Edinburgh's graduates. Students’ associations across the city must work together to change the situation with the weight of student support.