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.

The legal conceptualisation of higher education is becoming more visible in the rising number of complaints in some countries, either to independent adjudicators or in the courts.

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, students, university

7 Comments on “How exactly should universities view their students?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    Yes the picture you describe is interesting in that, as you say, it is the *classical* representation of knowledge and its delivery. What is patriarchal (maybe patronizing a better term?) about it is not only the relationship between the teacher and its disciples but also the fact that women are absent, knowledge not something that concerns them! Worth keeping this in mind at any time but particularly before International women day on March 8th.

    One of the best known classical representation of knowledge in the West is of course Raphael’s The School of Athens (1511),
    one of the earliest representations of the ‘two cultures’ ( Plato, the philosopher, and Aristotle, the scientific thinker). In that picture as well there are no women and no poor or uneducated people for that matter. The iconography of knowledge seems to have been that of an exclusive male club.

    It would be very difficult to present one picture which sums up teaching and learning in the 21st century, (which is a good thing!) or at least what we are striving towards: an *inclusive* environment that nurtures all aspects of creativity, art and design, technology and science in order to build a firm base of knowledge, skills and critical enquiry. Many interesting examples are emerging, the social media classroom is just one I personally find most exciting (

  2. Steve Button Says:

    The University sector has grown significantly in the 30 years; has it really been that long since I first graduated from the once great Institutes of Technology that we once had in Scotland.

    Universities have now become, and having myself spent well over 20 years in Industry, virtually indistinguishable from, apart that is from being a tad heavy on the regulatory side, major corporate enterprises with all that entails.

    I think that the culture and mindset required to adapt to this infinitely more commercial and customer responsive environment is perhaps alien to some of the more aged members of the University establishment. By the way I regard myself in the more aged cohort but I think it is fair to say that those Universities which over the last 20 years shifted to full University status may have fared rather better than the traditional ones ion this respect. Perhaps they have had to fight hard to establish their credibility and that has required that they be more responsive to market tends and student expectations.

    However most Institutions’ still seem to lack a clear view of where they sit in society and how they should treat their customers i.e. students.
    Students are at one and the same time a Universities product, customer and potential sales force and care must be taken in how this precious resource is handled.

    Perhaps there is far too much navel gazing within the education establishment which clouds matters.

    How we best balance the multitude of competing challenges we face is difficult but a first step of actually listening to and acting on what students are saying would be a good start.

    If I were in the unfortunate position of having to pay £9,000 per annum for fees what would be uppermost in my mind would be am I going to get a job at the end of this?

    Being provided with a top quality education from first rate lecturers would be a major priority in my mind.

  3. The post title talsk about ‘universities’, but the text, at least in paragraph 2, is about the relationship between academics and students – a rather different matter. The student’s relationship with her or his university is a contractual one. This is as much a matter of fact as any fact is capable of being. But it may not be merely contractual, and the relationship with an academic teacher may not be primarily contractual.

  4. Dan Says:

    That’s as maybe, but to be honest, I don’t recognise myself or my colleagues in the lecturer-student relationship described in your painting. In our courses – in a traditional discipline in an old university – we are constantly striving to improve and enhance our courses through active learning, seminars, electronic media and field trips, and the relationship with our students is a lot different than what you relate. Not meaning to be snarky here Ferdinand, and appreciative of your interesting post, but when is the last time you taught a university course?

    How “universities view their students” is not always how lecturers view them…

  5. kevin denny Says:

    A modern take on that painting would make clear that many of the students in the class were actually absent and, of those that were there, at least half were texting, checking Facebook or internet shopping.

  6. Australian experiences would also support Ferdinand’s comments in so far as there has been too much of an intrusion of bureaucratic processes into Australian universities. In many cases this has tended to drive a prioritising of organisational structural issues, which in practice tend to detract from research and over pedagogy. I agree that it’s time to redress the balance. Thanks Ferdinand for your astute observations.


    Professor Greg Bamber


  7. Joffs Says:

    I wish you also tapped into your experience to outline possible ways of redressing ‘the balance’!

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