Do keep an eye on students; but there are limits
There is little doubt that one of the key tasks for universities these days is to minimise attrition and ensure as few students as possible drop out. Every time a university admits a student, this represents a major investment – either by the students themselves, or by the taxpayer, or by other sponsors. That investment turns into a waste of money when a student does not complete the course.
All universities know that a key support for successful completion is close interaction with the student. The more a student is engaged, observed, assessed, spoken with, listened to, the more likely it is that the student will graduate. Class attendance and interaction with lecturers and tutors have particular benefits, raising the university’s awareness of what issues or problems a student may have.
One university appears to be contemplating another method of getting this kind of awareness: it is reported that Loughborough University is considering monitoring its students’ private emails. Apparently this involves looking for ‘negative comments’ as these could be an indicator of dissatisfaction or difficulty. Other universities are also looking at ways of perfecting their knowledge of at risk students, using and analysing data they have about them.
I suspect, however, that this kind of approach is both ethically questionable and doubtful as regards effectiveness. University studies are about intellectual engagement; on the other hand, the methods being used by Loughborough and others suggest it is about intelligence gathering by the university. Knowing your students is important, but this knowledge is secured through interaction rather than surveillance.
Maybe all this is a product of the checks and controls that universities themselves now face, with education viewed as performance. Some of that is inevitable and probably even right, but it should not crowd out properly understood pedagogy. And universities should avoid becoming their students’ Big Brother.