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Opinion: Why is Brunel University’s student union trying to dumb down lectures?

Monday, 28 November, 2011 6 comments

The picture below is a genuine advertisement that appeared in Brunel University’s student newspaper, Le Nurb, this month. It was sponsored by the Union of Brunel Students, which is campaigning to replace traditional lectures with school-style lessons for undergraduates.

Of course, doing so merely demonstrates that UBS’s Vice-President for Academic Representation, Craig Best, who is leading the anti-intellectual campaign, has missed the point of higher education.

“University is emphatically not about spoon-feeding and hand-holding through courses,” said Professor Anthony Grayling in a Guardian column some time ago.

The professor is, naturally, correct. Higher education is about self-directed learning where you read up on your topic in your own time, for your own intellectual enrichment. Being spoon-fed titbits in order to pass your exams merely reduces learning to lazy parroting, as recent generations are finding out to their cost.

“Students in a handout culture may fail to learn to take responsibility for their own learning,” added Dr David Hardman of London Metropolitan University. “In fact, there is now plenty of evidence that self-discipline is a major factor in student performance.”

Key to Dr Hardman’s point is “self-discipline”. Employers value graduates who can think for themselves and don’t need to have their hands held. Academic training teaches undergraduates how to reason through a problem and how to overcome it without being completely dependent on others. Best’s scheme will devalue Brunel degrees and make Brunel graduates less desirable to employers.

Ominously, Best’s scheme may also have implications for recent Brunel graduates whose existing qualifications may be called into question by his proposed scheme.

More importantly, from the intellectual point of view, dumbing lectures down into lessons degrades the learning experience for those who enjoy learning for its own sake. If Best was at all serious about improving the quality of learning, he would campaign for more seminars and other forms of guided learning. Instead he tries to drag everyone down to his level.

“Students learn a lot through working with their peers and on their own,” opines Paul Ramsden, visiting professor at the University of London’s Institute of Education, in the Times Higher Educational Supplement. “They see conventional lectures as far less useful than interactive ones, in which lecturers share their enthusiasm for their subject and motivate them to find out more for themselves.”

Introducing school-style lessons into universities will reinforce the “patronising culture that defines undergraduates as immature beings who cannot look out for themselves,” in Ramsden’s words. Best’s view of learning is childish and immature compared to the professional academics with decades of experience in the field. It is a shame that he is in a position of responsibility where he can negatively affect Brunel’s 17,000 students.

In the words of Prof Grayling: “Doing less for oneself at university is not to get a better deal; it is to get a worse deal. That’s going to be hard for some to grasp.”

The West Londoner attempted to contact Best prior to publication numerous times during office hours without success.

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