How exactly should universities view their students?
Next to the main reception desk of a university I visited a year or two ago is a large painting of a classical scene, in which a white robed teacher is addressing a group of young men. The teacher is standing, then young men are sitting around in a semi-circle. The teacher is talking and gesticulating, while the students sit quietly. A few of them are looking at the teacher with close attention, but at least one is distracted and looking somewhere else, while one is visibly asleep. But overall the image is one of teacher and disciples, of wisdom reaching out to young minds anxious to learn. There is something patriarchal about the teacher and his relationship with his students.
How would we present this picture today? What do we think is the relationship between our academics and our students? What does ‘learning’ mean in this current world, and what does it mean to be a ‘teacher’? Indeed, are lecturers and professors ‘teachers’ at all in the sense suggested by that classical scene? What concept of the relationship do we have in today’s world of ‘learning outcomes’?
The problem is that we probably don’t have a clear concept at all. The good things in today’s academic world include the much greater emancipation of students and the acceptance of participation in the learner journey. But alongside this there is the much greater intrusion of bureaucracy, and uncertainty as to how the students’ participation should be managed and directed.
One way of looking at it would be to say that the student’s relationship with her or his university is a contractual one, as some universities now do. In this relationship students accept a balance of rights and responsibilities in a legally defined relationship. Another would be to say that traditional models of managing higher education should give way to one in which students share, at least to some extent, the process of setting the institutional strategic direction and its implementation.
It seems to me that we have spent too much time on funding and organisation development, and not enough on clarifying the nature of the learner journey through the higher education system, and the relationship between students and their teachers. We have been driven to prioritising structure over pedagogy. It’s time to redress the balance.