University teachers: it's time to wake up

25th November 2011 at 00:00

We had some of last year's sixth-form leavers back a couple of months ago. It was great to see them, full of the confidence and swagger that a year or two at university can give. They were having a brilliant time and were only too keen to offer the fruits of their maturity and experience to the callow Year 12s they had come to meet. Everything at uni was just fine - everything, that is, but the teaching. It did not seem to worry them unduly. It worried me. And I think it should worry the rest of us.

Universities are hot news. If we are not arguing about how they should be financed, we are voicing strident opinions about who should be allowed to set them up. It is time we gave some thought instead to what goes on in them.

It is astonishing to me just how little attention is paid nationally to the quality of tuition at UK universities. Formal university rankings traditionally sidestep this matter and we are left to rely upon anecdote, rumour, gossip and the National Student Survey if we want to get any helpful idea of what is going on.

I presume that, like every school in the land, universities place the oversight of teaching and learning right at the top of their management and leadership priorities. I presume it, but I do wonder. Especially when you read what the National Student Survey has reported year after year about the quality of feedback on written assignments. It does not seem to get better.

I think we need to know more. So the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, with the support of other school associations, has commissioned some research. We asked 1,000 final-year undergraduates, mainly from the Russell and 1994 Group universities, about their experiences at school and at university. This is not a private-school thing - half the students were from state schools, half from independents.

The results are striking. Over 50 per cent said the teaching they received at school was better than at university. Only 28 per cent said their university teaching was better. Some 33 per cent described their university teaching as very good; the equivalent figure for schools was almost 60 per cent. Feedback on assessments at school was rated highly by almost 90 per cent of the students. Only 50 per cent said the same about their university feedback.

The bad versus the brilliant

There is a lot more in the survey, but what comes out again and again is that school teachers give more personal attention, offer clearer guidelines and, quite simply, take more trouble.

I can hear the objections already: you are not comparing like with like; university teaching is different; students have to learn to stand on their own two feet; too much school teaching is just spoon-feeding anyway. But I am not doing the comparing - the students are. They know when they are learning well. And I am not trying to suggest that university teaching should be just like what happens in schools. Perish the thought!

I know there is some great work going on in school sixth-forms. I believe there is some brilliant university teaching, too. Surely this research shows that we should share that practice far more. University teachers should have a far clearer idea of how students have been working and learning and engaging in their sixth-forms. And we sixth-form teachers should be encouraged to understand far more about the developments in learning that will take place at university.

It is time that teaching at schools and universities was properly joined up. Every stage of the school curriculum is planned with meticulous - excessive - care. We get to the end of Year 13 and it is back to the law of the jungle: minimum co-ordination, virtually no oversight at all and, I believe, a huge variation in standards and in the experience for students.

This is easily put right. As a first step, it simply requires a structure of dialogue that will allow us to understand one another better. After all, we are all teachers. Aren't we?

Kenneth Durham is headmaster of University College School, London, and chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

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