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Colin Johnson’s blog

Sacred Cows in Higher Education (1)

Let’s slaughter some sacred cows; or, as I’ve been a vegetarian for a quarter of a century, perhaps some sacred quornburgers. I’m concerned that there are a few things in higher education that we just automatically take as unchangeable background without considering them as part of a tradeoff that we make. The more of these we have, the more sclerotic our decision-making process becomes.

Something that we seem obsessed with when planning teaching is delivering module-for-module what we promised to students on arrival. This promise is made to students before they apply, which in the UCAS system can be over a year before they arrive to start their course. Furthermore, this is dictated by the printing deadline for the dead-tree prospectus—I also thought that this was ludicrous in this online age, but I did a couple of straw polls at UCAS days and the printed doorstop is still used a lot by applicants, so perhaps this isn’t so unreasonable. This adds the best part of another year to the process, as the things have to be designed and printed and distributed a few months before applications start to be made. Then there is a QA and budgeting time-burden of getting programmes and programme-changes approved. Let’s say that in total this means that we need to have made decisions on this a good two years before students enter.

Therefore, we are saying that if we make decisions about a programme by September 2012, and students are on a four year course like most of ours are, we are making decisions about the details of what they will study in Spring 2019. This hardly seems conducive to running a dynamic, up-to-date programme.

I’m not so convinced that students care that much about the details. Of course, if you promised a degree in Ancient History and delivered one in English Literature, you would be in a mess. But, I don’t think that it is unreasonable to be more indicative about the contents of the programme, and expect some trust from student that we will design a good, up-to-date programme for them. We could go further and negociate the contents of the curriculum year-on-year with the cohort who are actually going to study the damn stuff.

I also get the impression that a lot of people “out there” think that we have a lot more flexibility with our students than we do. It would be great if we could pick up a topic in the news in class; take up an offer for a guest lecture from someone passing through; the opportunity to work on a project for an interesting external client now, whilst the opportunity is meaningful, rather than a few months down the line when project choices need to be made. Some people manage to do this sort of thing—but it is rather difficult. I wonder how we could do this within the curriculum, this seems to be exactly what the university experience should be like, yet we have lots of structures that militate against this.

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