Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Students and my education.

Today was one of those days that sucks the very soul right out of you. I spent my time dealing with the consequences of failing students in a paper that I teach.

The bottom line is that higher education in the developed world has entered a phase of denial. In order to dance to the governments tune Universities take in more students and magically maintain their pass rate whilst teaching them for diminishing amounts of money. We might call this increased efficiency, we might call it better teaching. Some of the time this may even be true. However there has also been a tendency to coerce lecturers towards passing students who should perhaps not be at University at all.

This is not a reflection on the students; they are as ever bright kids many with a great future ahead of them. What has become clear to me over the years is that a number of those who attend University have made conscious decisions to invest in activities other than education. These decisions have been made quite often before they get to university and consequently these students have achieved in line with the effort they have expended. Good on ‘em I hope it is worth it. They should enjoy the mobiles, games and other stuff they buy with the money they earn whilst not attending to their education. That said they shouldn’t be encouraged to go to university with the expectation that they can, work have the goodies, have fun and get a degree as a sideline. Because students pay fees that does not give them an automatic entitlement to a qualification. Achievement is linked to effort and consequently earning meaningful qualifications demands effort. No effort = no ticket.

The problem is that governments like the one in New Zealand also want educated kids without paying for it. So we have less effort, less money and more students. Go figure.

I have no problem supporting and teaching anyone who is prepared to make the sacrifices required to achieve a valued goal, particularly and educational one. But the majority of students that I teach have no grasp of this concept and vastly different expectations. Something I blame on schools, parents, educational establishments and above all the government. University education requires hard work at some stage or other, if we let students in expecting anything else we are lying to them and we are lying to ourselves. The consequences are either that the students fail (rarely) or that in fact they don’t receive the education consistent with the qualification they receive. Follow this to its logical conclusion and you have cereal box degrees of no real value to anyone.

This is the situation in the US, hence the need for the graduate record exam. The GRE may not be a measure of anything other than a students willingness to work in order to achieve valued goals. Hence proper university education should consign this Exam to irrelevance. It doesn’t because Uni ain’t what they used to be. And boy don’t I know it.

What has this to do with today ? Well I spent most of the day doing the mountain of paperwork necessary to fail students and then did another mountain trying to set up means by which they can have another go. This raises two issues:

i) My employers will never tell me that I cannot fail a student, they will however set up a system that makes it sooo much easier when you just fix things to pass as many as possible.

ii) Some of these students can barely write in English (yes there are people who write worse than me) and consequently should not pass until they can.

But here’s the scary soul destroying bit. Some of the students I have failed and will now have to re-assess, are overseas students with English as a second language. Some of them are not. When marking their work it became clear to me, that excepting the rather obvious names at the tops of the papers, some of the work was so bad from the English first language students as to be indistinguishable from the foreign students. That is pretty bad. How do these kids graduate school ? How do they get let into University ? What damage will this do to education and consequently society as a whole in the log run ? I don’t know the answers to this. None of what I have written here will come as a surprise to many others involved with higher education. This has probably been written elsewhere.

What kills me is that Higher Education caused my re-birth as a capable and occasionally useful human being. I became an educator in order to offer the same opportunities to others. I did this in the belief that I was doing something of use and value. It fills me with aching bitterness after a day like today to realise that I am struggling to achieve these aims. It will become impossible as time progresses because neither the students nor the institutions will be set up to do this. Yet the students will leave university in the belief that they hold the same qualification that people valued so highly in years past. An opportunity will be lost, damage will be done, and I will be part of a larger lie. I’m not sure how long my conscience will put up with betraying my personal values and the students I teach, many of whom are a pleasure to know. I’m even less sure what to do about it.

Yes I always feel like this at the end of an academic year and sometimes teaching does turn up something that gives me hope. But each year this feeling gets worse and I don’t think it is because I’m getting older.

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