How many hours’ contact time do you have every week? How regularly do you see your Personal Tutor? If you do see them, how often is your conversation with them in-depth? When you do assessed work, how often do you receive truly meaningful feedback?
If you’re an arts student, probably, the answers to these questions will be variants on “not a lot”. Instead, we study for our degrees anonymously over WebCT and in the library, focusing on achieving that magical 60%. Those who strive to do better find that they struggle with poor feedback and inconsistent marking. Are the dual pressures of being a ‘research-led’ institution and the desire to push through more undergraduates meaning that Nottingham students are taught less? If so, what is the University planning to do about it? As much as we might love the student lifestyle devoted to wine, women and song, we are also paying more than three thousand pounds a year for an education. We are, therefore, customers of the University, and have some right to insist on a decent standard of service.
This is reflected in Nottingham’s performance in nationwide league tables. Alastair McCall from the Sunday Times University Guide, while acknowledging that we do fairly well, told Impact that “Nottingham’s scores are less exceptional” when judged against other Russell Group universities.
How big is the problem?
A quick look at the league tables suggests that, while some students have very good experiences, a great many have distinctly average ones. Over the past few years Nottingham has been suffering from comparatively low levels of Student Satisfaction. In the National Student Survey (NSS), conducted every year, the University almost always falls down on the final question – the general, “how satisfied are you with your university?” This is a particularly important question and, as McCall points out, is the statistic that universities are most likely to quote to prospective students. It also affects our standing in the league tables, with all twenty-two questions on the NSS being taken into consideration, contributing to our positions of 19th and 16th over the last two years according to the Times. While we have certainly improved, we are still below our legitimate expectations to be in the Top 10. Indeed, in the 2009 tables the only institutions in the Top 20 with lower levels of Student Satisfaction were the LSE and Edinburgh.
Students’ Union President, Nsikan Edung, told Impact that “the real barrier to Nottingham progressing every year has been the NSS scores and, in particular, those relating to the Student Experience”. He believes that “it is in the University’s interest to work with the Students’ Union more closely and actively in order to improve scores and to improve the life of students”. A hard hitting challenge, some might say.
But why should we care about the league tables? As much as we may dislike the simplicity of them, they are incredibly important to the University. They may be one of the first things looked at by prospective students deciding which universities to apply to and so will affect the quality and number of applicants. Furthermore, they may affect the way in which employers view modern Nottingham graduates, meaning that they matter just as much to us as to the University.
Some members of the University hierarchy have criticised the NSS and its importance to the league tables on the grounds that it is unrepresentative of the student body, and that the timing of the survey – during the January exams – catches students when they are least likely to be satisfied with their experience. However, this argument seems like a bit of a cop-out, and certainly last year’s SU Exec seem to agree. A leaked memo from last year’s SU Education Officer, Matt Gayle, says of the University’s complaints that they “could be true, but I doubt it – this is just another excuse.”
So what is the cause of all this dissatisfaction? It seems the answer lies principally with the feedback and pastoral care system within the academic experience. At the moment, contact with Personal Tutors is limited to only a few short meetings a year. This can lead to a lack of understanding or communication between the tutor and tutee. Without this, the tutor system becomes a waste of time for both parties. For example, one joint-honours student described how, at the first meeting with their Personal Tutor, the conversation lasted around ten minutes before it became obvious that the tutor had no idea what degree the student was actually taking. It is hard to believe that either party gained much from the conversation. One tutor we interviewed explained that, with fifty undergraduate tutees, most of whom they will never teach, they “never develop any relationship to them [sic]”. This calls into question the value of having any form of personal tutorial system at all. Asked whether students would benefit from more contact time and whether the system needed improvement, Edung was unequivocal in agreement: “that’s really true because I’ve seen it myself…in my last year I never even saw my Personal Tutor all year”.
A further problem highlighted by students is one of seminars conducted by seemingly apathetic tutors. The University is unashamedly research-led, and rightly too in my opinion. However, some students have pointed out that seminars are often conducted by tutors (particularly PhD students) who have no specific interest or knowledge in the area under discussion. One History student describes having to explain a key concept to their tutor during preparation for an assessed presentation. They left wondering whether their work would even be accurately assessed. Tutorials are frequently student-led, sometimes resulting in little or no involvement from the tutor. While these remain undoubtedly useful for some, others have questioned whether they would have gained more from working on their own or with the active involvement of a tutor.
The issue here is one of emphasis. Following the introduction of tuition fees, should we not be getting more from our education? One of the conundrums facing research-led institutions as a result of the introduction of tuition fees is that students now have higher expectations. Now that we are personally paying, at least in part, for our education, we expect more from it. Universities have opened themselves up to a whole new customer base who demand more contact time and more focused tutorials. This does not sit well with the attitude that says research is paramount. Many students wonder why there is such a disparity between the Oxbridge tutorial system and that of other institutions. While they acknowledge that funding is significantly different, they also point out that they still end up paying the same for a markedly different experience. Surely there is some middle ground. Perhaps there is a fundamental problem with the intake of the University. One tutor we interviewed pointed out that the tutor-student ratio made the type of relationship called for an impossibility.
It’s not just the tutor system that has come under fire; the quality of feedback also needs to be improved. Essay feedback usually only comprises a series of ticked boxes and a scribbled paragraph, somehow culminating in a grade. Exam feedback is even more obscure. According to Unistats.com, less than half of students receive detailed comments on their work or have found feedback helpful. This is backed up by Craig Cox, this year’s SU Education Officer, who identifies the quality of feedback as an area in which “Nottingham University is struggling more than it should be.” As a result of this inadequate feedback system, many students feel they are not being properly supported by their University. Edung commented that the lack of contact time can make “students actually feel like it [their degree course] is quite impersonal”. As a result, he feels that “the University must make more effort to reconnect with students.”
Similar issues have been identified with the consistency of marking schemes. Cox highlighted to Impact the problem of helping students to understand the distinction between performances more fully. According to Cox, we need to be “looking at getting consistency amongst markers within one school…on an average classification sheet [within the School of History], for example, you’ve got layout of essay, Historiography, quality of sources…one is bad, five is good. You get one marker who would give you straight fives and a mark of 68 and you get one marker who would give you straight threes and a mark of 67. For me, that creates a problem, because you can be doing excellently and only just not getting a First or doing good and still only just not getting a First.”
So what can be done?
It is acknowledged that it’s impossible for Nottingham to ape the Oxbridge teaching model. One Cambridge academic interviewed by Impact pointed out that the Oxbridge collegiate systems “subsidise the cost of teaching to quite a considerable extent”, an option not available to Nottingham. However, several ways of restoring the situation have been mooted within the University. The ePars system was designed to improve the amount of information shared between tutors and tutees. However, according to a leaked SU memo, “largely ePars was a flop across the University.” The software was “cumbersome” and students and staff have failed to use it. The idea has stuck, however, and morphed into a new concept: Personal Development Goals (PDGs). Students in several schools, including Civil Engineering and the Built Environment, will already be familiar with these. The idea is that at the beginning of each year students will be given the opportunity to set a personal goal. This can be anything, but is typically non-academic. Then, during the year, students are encouraged to meet with their tutor to reflect on their achievements against their stated goal. The Students’ Union feels that “personal development goals have been majorly beneficial to the students taking part in them”. Furthermore, during last year’s University Quality Audit of the Civil Engineering Department, the school was strongly praised by the panel for its implementation and integration of the PDGs.
So why have they not been rolled out across the University as a whole? Perhaps partly due to the failure of ePars, which was an initiative ordered by University management. Again, according to the Students’ Union, as a result of the failure of ePars “the University management are very nervous to order such roll-outs, unless they are more than certain of guaranteed success”. It would seem that ePars has led to a dangerous risk aversion on their part. However, there might also be resistance from tutors themselves. When asked whether academics should be a bit more hands on with their tutees, one social sciences tutor responded that they didn’t “think it would make much sense if the University pressured us from above to do it”. This suggests that the University management is stuck between the rock of disgruntled students and the hard place of intransigent academic staff.
Another possible palliative measure is the Registrar’s Nottingham Award. This is designed to make the Nottingham Graduate a more reflective, mature individual who will be more employable as a result. The suggested framework is to provide credit-bearing modules that do not affect degree classifications but do build up to a separate ‘Nottingham Award’. Credits may be available for, amongst other things, work experience and society management. It is hoped that the Nottingham Award may go some way toward improving Nottingham’s NSS scores. However, according to a confidential SU memo, Matt Gayle believes “that…is bollocks”, an opinion shared by this writer. There is also a fear that the Nottingham Award may be hampering the progress of Personal Development Goals. Both ideas deal with similar areas, possibly leading to conflict between the two.
It is clear that there are major issues with feedback and the tutor system as a whole. These problems are damaging the University’s performance in the league tables and so too its image both nationally and internationally. However, it is similarly clear that there are no easy, quick or cheap fixes. Of the two detailed ideas suggested, it seems that what is needed is not a new certificate that may only be attained by a small number of students, but a genuine attempt to tackle the problem at its source. Personal Development Goals have led to genuine improvements for many students. This writer stands full throat behind them.