Who are you?

Not the chant at a football ground, but a question we could be asking of ourselves – how well do we know our students?

At an institutional level, or indeed course level we can do two  things. Firstly we could carry out market segmentation that might tell us so much – games designers like to play computer games in their free time for instance. Secondly we can realise benefits through a data-centric approach to supporting teaching. If we can identify for instance, that for a given module, more than 50% of the students taking it entered university with BTEC qualifications, then maybe there are some conclusions for the lecturer to draw in terns of how to deliver and in particular how to assess. As we move into the era of TEF, then this ability to use data to measure outcomes might be come ever more important, with the comments made recently by Jo Johnson on the differential performance of students from WP or BME backgrounds

In terms of having a holistic view of who we teach, are there some generalities we can consider to give a holistic view, and will this help us to understand some of the current trends in higher education?

The dominant narrative in HE is always about 18-21 year-olds who are studying full time. These are the students who, for most institutions, generate most of the income, and also provide the outcomes that are subsequently used in league tables and are most likely to be used in the Teaching Excellence Framework. While recognising the importance of other groups of students, this article focuses on this grouping, since their behaviours tend to dominate policy.

Firstly we can think of how this generation of students can be defined in terms of their attitudes to technology. Born in 1997, they have never used a computer that was not controlled with a mouse or a touch interface. They have been used to having a mobile device all their lives, and a tablet computer for the last 5. So through senior school and public exams, they have been used to having easy access to the web. They can’t even envisage a time when the web wasn’t ubiquitous. They operate in a  world defined by online social media networks and physical storage is a strange concept. Clearly for us to be able to work with these students, we need to have our own high levels of digital capability, and this is a topic I will be returning to in coming weeks.

As well as understanding the technology expectations that these students bring to university, we can also look at some of their motivations. Focusing on young full time undergraduates, then they are what was termed in today’s Observer as  Generation K, or Katniss. (You may need to have teenaged children to understand this reference.)

…the economist and academic Noreena Hertz, who coined the term Generation K (after Katniss) for those born between 1995 and 2002, says that this is a generation riddled with anxiety, distrustful of traditional institutions from government to marriage, and, “like their heroine Katniss Everdeen, [imbued with] a strong sense of what is right and fair”

This generation worry about getting a job and this is understandable after major economic downturn, but the impact it might be having on these students’ attitude to higher education education is that they perceive HE as a means to getting a job. Although this is understandable, within the academy we still have a responsibility to show that higher education is more than that.

Writing in the same newspaper, WiIll Hutton, author of “The State We’re In” and now Master of Hertford College, Oxford, tackles the issues of the freedom to argue and the freedom to be challenged within universities. Hutton is primarily concerned with the retreat of liberalism and the diminution in importance of the idea of a public realm:

This disdain for notions of publicness has created a vacuum occupied by the rise of a libertarian individualism that indulges belief over reason. Non-falsifiable belief systems used only to be the hallmark of ideological communism or religious zealotry. Now, ideas, especially on the right but also to a degree on the left are less and less tested in a public realm by debate, with evidence marshalled to justify them. Instead, they are asserted as valid because the holder believesthem.

This new individualism, alongside the decline of the public, has provoked a mounting tide of, at best, siloed thinking, impervious to criticism, and, at worst, the indulgence of rank prejudice. Thus, on the right, if I feel that Britain is being swamped by immigrants, climate change is bogus, maleness is being overwhelmed by “femininazi” women or the welfare system is transfixed by cheating, then, whatever the facts, my feeling is valid because I hold it. That suffices without proof or evidence. In any case, there will always be some article in a rightwing paper to justify it.

Again, this individualism can be expressed by students – being risk-averse and not willing to be challenged or taken out of their comfort zones leads to behaviours that create “safe spaces” on campus, where we can no longer  hear certain views in case others are offended. In the same way, we might have a group of students who don’t want to be challenged too much in their learning, seeing a degree as a commercial transaction, rather than a transformational experience, the benefits of which may only be realised many years after completion. We ask students every year in the National Student Survey whether they felt their course was intellectually stimulating. We want our students to engage with their discipline, not as passive recipients, but as active scholars providing contribution and challenge. To do this though, we will need to remind ourselves of the tendency to be risk-averse, to want to be treated as a consumer and to be challenged just enough – but not so much it becomes too hard. We would do well to remember that as well as being stimulating, courses are supposed to challenge, be intellectually difficult  and to provide arguments that question individual beliefs.

Finally, this generation of students perceive themselves to be consumers. As argued in her book “Consuming Higher Education”, Joanna Williams of University of Kent argues that this attitude to consumption doesn’t come about just because of the introduction of tuition fees. Instead, Williams argues that we have a generation who have been led into this interpretation of what higher education is about, in part by the behaviours of universities:

“Rather than universities challenging the idea that a degree is an entitlement, institutions instead strengthen this notion. The provision of quantifiable information on contact hours assessment patterns and employment prospects suggests students are correct to to perceive of a degree as a product.”

Individual institutions can’t turn around and say we are having no part of this agenda as we are obliged to publish this information and no doubt will provide more in future. What we can do is explain better what the quantifiable data actually means, and more importantly, what it does not mean.

As we all write our responses to consultations on quality assurance, on the teaching excellence framework, and as we redevelop our own strategy documents in the light of a forthcoming Green Paper, we need to remind ourselves that universities do exist as more than degree factories that are there to produce “satisfied” customers. Understanding more about the backgrounds of our students and recognising the reasons for their consumerist behaviours may help us in the long term to be able to better articulate what the wider benefits of HE are, and the role of universities in liberal society.