Universities have to show that they care

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Exam results will be rolling out of computers in Scottish secondary schools next week and teachers will anxiously peruse them. Not to forget, of course, the individual candidates for whom the postman takes on the new and terrible role of potential harbinger of doom. One of the reasons I like to see my pupils' results on the day they are published is that I know how important they are for the next stage in the complex game of life.

Higher education is next on the agenda for many pupils and most of us feel the odd pang for them as they engage in the irrevocable fate of walking out of school to an unknowable but hopefully exciting future. Part of what they will be glad to leave behind is the clucking mother hen syndrome, a feature of their caring teachers. We nurture them, encourage, cajole, chastise sometimes, moan at them blah, blah, blah ad nauseam.

With multiple sighs of relief, they escape their school nests and, hey ho, the sky's the proverbial limit. Freshers' week - all that cheap booze, everyone wooing you, all desperately seeking new friends. Even the hangover, however unpleasant, is a badge of honour. A university student at last, it's the business!

But sadly all too often it's not. After all the mothering of school, most universities are cold, hard places. The personal interest taken in school is seldom replicated in higher education establishments. Disappointingly, many lecturers and tutors engage with their charges only on a superficial level.

Recently - in a social context - I was introduced to a university lecturer.

During the ensuing small talk, I asked her if she knew one of my former pupils. No, she had never heard of her. Incidentally, my student has a rather unusual name. Later on I e-mailed my pupil who replied enthusiastically about the aforementioned lecturer. Yes, said my student, she's my tutor and we have some great discussions.

Well? This aroused antipathy towards the lecturer which is swiftly reaching its nadir in this column. I couldn't quite believe that, after almost a year together, the lecturer didn't even recognise the name of one of 12 in her tutorial, someone who achieved an overall A grade in the subject.

Naturally, I did not devastate my former pupil by passing on the sad tale.

But schoolteachers would be crucified for such indifference and rightly so.

Universities are shouting loudly about the latest paper issued by the Scottish Executive on the future funding of higher education. I do support them on that one because our universities are grossly underfunded. But they must get their houses in order and start actively supporting students.

Take essay writing. Again, I rely on feedback from former pupils. Essays sometimes take an inordinate time to be marked and often they are returned to their owners with little more than a grade slapped on them. I have seen them - essays of 2,000 words with no written comment on them. How can this be justified? My criticism will incite so many forests' worth of nonsense, bitter defence, invective and I will be interested to listen. But I don't want to hear the cliche that students have to stand on their own two feet.

Universities need to take much more note of ongoing research into teaching and learning techniques, some of which, ironically, they are churning out themselves. If universities want funding commensurate with their role in society then they need to update the way they support and teach students.

People so expect a perfect world, don't they? Not the sort of perfection achieved by political efforts with litter being collected on time and criminals rightfully convicted of their crimes but a world where emotional intelligence is employed to the full.

That's what the real world demands and universities need to launch themselves into it - now more than ever before.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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