The University of the Future

“today taught me that this is about far more than pensions. This is protesting the way universities operate at a much deeper level. Today we formed a community — we went and we learnt without pressure of assessment, for the sake of learning.”

@ells.jpeg, twitter, 28/2/18

Over the last four weeks, academic staff have been taking industrial action to protest the proposed changes to pension schemes. I can’t claim to understand the ins and outs of pension schemes, but what I do understand is that the widely touted figure of £10,000 less pension per year, per academic is a lot of pension at stake. As a student, I value my lecturers, and as someone who would quite like to be an academic, I value my own financial security, so from the beginning I’ve been quite involved with strike action.  I’ve been attending picket lines, going to socials, talking to the strikers and fellow students supporting the strikes, and participating in some fascinating conversation.

 

As I mentioned in my tweet, the strikes are about far more than pensions. The discussions taking place on the picket lines are about changing the future of higher education in a much deeper way. Discussions are taking place around the future and place of assessments within education. We place such great emphasis on assessment, and excelling in assessment that we lose a lot of the passion that is so important to academia. As students, we feel as though we are constantly working towards the next assessment, only studying so we can do well in our degree. But we chose this degree because we love the subject, because it’s something we’re passionate about, and putting pressure on students to constantly be producing work that meets assessment guidelines removes a lot of the passion. A lot of lecturers have brought this up in our pop-up teach outs occurring in a local church, as well as on the picket lines, hoping that the University of the Future will find a more appropriate way to assess student’s progress, and place the focus back on the learning, rather than the assessment.

Being at the teach outs, listening to the presentations given by some rather excellent speakers simply because we wanted to listen, because we were interested, because we wanted to learn, was liberating and I didn’t quite understand why during the first teach out, but later I realised this was precisely why. Nobody is going to test me on the information I learned at the teach outs. Nobody is going to give me an essay title and ask me to craft a response. Any response I produce to the presentations is because I felt a desire to craft it, because I feel strongly about the topic.

 

Another goal for our University of the Future is collaboration. Breaking down the hierarchy between students and academics creates a friendlier learning environment, a more cohesive community. Academics value student ideas and feedback and want to start discussions around the topics that involve both students and academics as this lends itself to the most productive way of progressing knowledge, but currently most students see academics as somewhat unreachable. Today’s teach out, #teachout2, featured undergraduate students speaking alongside their professors, offering a different point of view on a topic and creating a more effective and thoughtful wider conversation.

The barriers between institutes would also ideally be broken down to create the University of the Future. This idea was introduced by one of the lecturers today at the teach out, and made me consider why there is such intense competition between institutions. The answer? Marketisation. Universities are selling a product (a degree) to consumers (the student), and therefore compete against the other institutions in order to attract more students, and therefore more money. The real focus of higher education should be the education, and academics want to research, and educate, and there is no reason for such competition between institutions if the main focus was on research and learning.

 

Another topic of conversation happening a lot on the picket line is the stability of jobs and financial pressures on staff and students. PhD students, especially, find the financial pressures intense, and often have no choice but to take on teaching to supplement their income as they struggle to live. This creates a culture of fear around PhDs, and discourages many prospective students. Other staff at the university may be working on temporary contracts, and worry about the stability of their job from year to year, or on hourly contracts which means their pay is affected by how many hours they are asked to work, which can vary greatly.

Even undergraduate students can find themselves under a great deal of financial pressure if their families are unwilling or unable to support them. The means-tested loans means that students from lower income families receive more support from the government, which means that they have a greater debt when they finish their degree, and with no support from family, even students on the largest possible loan may struggle to make ends meet, without bursaries or scholarships from their university. The stereotype of the broke student can put prospective students off university – after all, nobody wants to live on beans on toast for three years as anecdotes would have us believe students are forced to do, surely? (I have never once eaten beans on toast since being at university. Primarily because I don’t like baked beans, but I digress). Students generally can afford a slightly more interesting meal than beans on toast, but my friends regularly turn down opportunities to go out because they’d have to pay for entry fees to a club – where I’m studying this is almost always under £5. If someone can’t afford to shell out a couple of quid for a night out once a week, then changes should probably be made to the system.

 

There are a lot of things about higher education that I would like to change, moving forwards. Higher education is important to the future of our society, and I will fight to protect it, as I have said before, and I worry that if we don’t make changes to higher education, it may start to crumble. What we have seen over the last four weeks is that there is a massive, nationwide community who feel just as passionate about the future of higher education as I do, likely even more so. As a community, we are prepared to push for change, and challenge those trying to take steps we see as non-progressive. The momentum we have built up during these four weeks must be maintained if we are to make any change – the fear now is that discussions will peter out, and everything will just go back to as it was before the strikes, but I hope that we have started a discussion that has now expanded too far to be extinguished by a return to normal scheduling.

 

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