Universities Must Do More to Inspire Students

21/10/2013 15:30 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

What purpose do universities serve and what are their priorities? What are their benefits to society? Why do young people attend them? Questions which need to be discussed-by students, professors, by society as a whole, but questions which aren't asked enough.

Unfortunately, the purview of the debate about British universities is very narrow. When the state of British universities is discussed today it's too often linked in some way to the vitriolic issue of tuition fees. Was it the right decision? Where's the value for money? Worthwhile questions of course. But an obsession with fees from those who proclaim to represent students, most notably the NUS, detracts from other issues which deserve our attention (their redundancy as a body in my mind came when before an NUS demonstration last autumn, one of the committee members circulated an email with suggested chants such as "Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the tories on the top, put the libdems in the middle and burn the f***ng lot!).

It is easy to presume that British universities are in a good place right now. In the latest Times World University Rankings, Britain can boast six universities in the top twenty, second only to the US in terms of domination. This is a feat to be proud of for sure. But a feat which shouldn't make us smug, nor prevent us to demand the best we can from our universities.

Me, my friends and it seems young people as whole, especially those from aspirational middle class backgrounds, go to university because it is the done thing. To do otherwise would be frowned upon; an awkward explanation would have to be given every time someone asks 'where do you go to university?' People drift unthinkingly into the next stage of life-university- without considering whether it's best for them, but perhaps more pertinently, without demanding a certain level of quality from the institutions that they become a part of.

I have had a fantastic time at my own university of York. I've certainly learnt a lot from my history degree thus far and have encountered a few great numbers of staff. That said, I and many of my friends, at York and at other universities around the country, feel somewhat disillusioned with what we've experienced. Perhaps the main focus of our disappointment is the quality of the teaching we have encountered. I did an admittedly fairly incomprehensive survey of my friends from various universities around the country, asking whether they had encountered any professor, just one, that had inspired them. The response was very negative. One from Nottingham commented "Absolutely not, they are all very uninspiring". Another, from Bristol, stated "Uni professors/tutors are cold and only interested in their own research. Limited to zero interest in either their own teaching ability or teaching performance. They are pompous and unfriendly."

I should make a disclaimer-most of the friends I asked went to private school, so it's not uncontroversial to say that they are inclined to be more dependent on staff care and attention. That said, it is very rare, irrespective of the school you attended, not to have encountered at least one inspirational teacher over your fifteen (or even thirteen) years in education. Unfortunately however, universities care very little about the quality of the teaching that their professors provide. What matters far more is their ability to contribute to the university's research output. This, in my mind, is where universities have a fundamental imbalance in their priorities-they value contribution to academia far and above contribution to enriching and inspiring young people.

There is little there within British universities to incentivise good teaching. To progress within the world of academia, to exude more gravitas in public life, the first stage is to become a Dr and next a Professor. The criteria for achieving these accolades are, as far as I'm aware, determined primarily by your contribution to academic journals and how many books or chapters in edited books you write.

My own supervisor at York (someone in the department who has an eye on you throughout your course) has won the 'Supervisor of the Year' award. This is voted on by students. I suspect the voter turn-out for this prize isn't particularly high, but his students have nonetheless taken the time to vote for him because he has in some way touched their lives. However, my supervisor explained to me that the devotion he gives to his pupils is at the expense of progression within the world of academia (you might say this is a dishonest excuse, but given how sincere I have found him I'm inclined to believe him). He has less time to write for academic journals or write academic books which means he retains the title of Dr, rather than being able to become a Professor. The best teachers at universities, indeed the land, need to be shouted about from the rooftops. They need, they deserve more recognition than is currently afforded to them. Universities should devote much more energy to steps that recognise their best teachers. What is more positive, more beneficial to society- contributing to academic journals that only really interest fellow academics? Or inspiring and enriching the lives of young people?

There's also little incentive to improve your teaching, nor a fear of what happens if you are inadequate. British universities regularly ask for feedback on modules. But they are meagre mechanisms: it's not clear that student feedback is being heeded. All students have faced the dilemma of feeling a sense of obligation to attend a lecture for the sake of it, despite knowing it will probably be a fruitless task given how little they've got out of the previous lectures that professor has given. It was slightly sobering when, at York, student hours for third years were increased by an hour each week. This announcement came a few weeks after a story in the Daily Mail in which history at York fared particularly badly in a ranking of contact hours. Was this really a coincidence?

When my sister was an undergraduate at UCL, our mother attended an open-day at which parents were invited to sample the lectures on offer. Enthusiastically, my mum chose to go to an archaeology lecture with an appealing sounding title. She was disappointed, even surprised, to be lectured at in a monotonous tone, with slides that had clearly been recycled a hundred times. The lecturer was devoid of any passion or ability to communicate overarching themes. When my mother reported her experience to my sister, the response was 'welcome to my world.' This coming from an institution that was placed fourth in the Global Times Rankings, above Oxford. At York my fellow history students and I have had to endure numerous painfully dull lectures, many given by those who have been in the university's employment for a very long time, exposing the insufficiency of the mechanisms to improve teaching.

High quality lecturers almost always have similar characteristics: being able to speak coherently and engagingly; not looking at notes but at the audience; having a clear structure; not having too much text on slide. That lecturers in the country are not compelled by their departments to realise the basic criteria for being a good lecturer is so elementary it is farcical. That there isn't the boldness or will to tell an inadequate lecturer that when delivering a lecture, it would be more effective to look at students rather than a piece of paper, indicates a meekness and negligence from university departments. In the USA, the student assessment process of lecturers is far more rigorous. Some student newspapers even publish the responses. There's thus an increased pressure to ensure that inadequacy is rooted out and increased incentive to be outstanding, be it in the lecture hall or the seminar room. St Anthony of Padua, who lived in twelfth century Italy, had his lower jaw enshrined upon death in memory of his oratorical brilliance. An honour that is unlikely to be bestowed on many university lecturers working in Britain today.

In my opening lecture at York, the head of the History department proclaimed that my fellow historians were the best of the best and that they'd come to one of the best departments in the country. But he hasn't expressed much of an interest to get to know 'the best of the best'. I have not seen him since. In the general welcome talk at my first week at university, the Vice-Chancellor casually asserted that York was one of the best universities in the world. No bad thing to speak up your institution, but its head doesn't display world class interest in his students. I occasionally see the Vice-Chancellor pacing about near the university administration hub, but I can't recall him ever talking to a student. It's not too much to ask that those that run universities and those that teach at them, take an interest in its students and are able to hold a conversation with young people.

A stand out exception from my humble survey of whether you found teachers inspiring, was Oxford and Cambridge (UCL fared well too). They have a system which encourages much greater student-staff interaction and an environment that is conducive to forging meaningful relationships. Within British universities, there's a slight inbuilt spitefulness about Oxbridge. Whilst individual universities should have their own identity and practices, Oxford and Cambridge are the two best universities in Britain which between them have been educating young people for well over 1500 years. Not trying to emulate them in certain ways demonstrates an irresponsible sense of pride. A stand out reason why Oxbridge students get so much out their degree is the rapport they build up with tutors. Students are also in more of a position to get all they can out of university staff. This can be seen most vividly with the essay. I had four practice essays in my second year, a ridiculously low number. Other universities have similarly low numbers (far fewer than in the past). This compares with Oxbridge humanities students who get them week in week out. The essay is such a fundamental means of personal development-it improves your ability to argue, your writing style and clarity of thought. But it is being neglected.

At university, you should really enjoy your subject. Not everyone will, of course. But it shouldn't just be a stepping stone to a career. University is often the last chance to learn and be educated. Learning shouldn't stop in adulthood, but it too often does. If you get a teacher who conveys the passion and love for their subject, it rubs off, and you in turn become enthused. If you get a teacher who cares about you and gives you their time, in return, you are more likely to work for them, to want to impress them and to try your hardest in class and in your work.

Academia is of course important, far more important than I've given it the time here. The benefits of academic research are more incremental, not immediately obvious, but essential in the long term. This is most obvious is in medical advances. Given how demanding society is of short term results, it is right that academia is a world that is given more time. There is also a financial incentive for universities to carry out research-this a prime source of income and funding from external bodies. A systematic overhaul in the way that universities receive money is an unlikely scenario. But this isn't a sufficient reason for a university's neglect of its students.

I'm not demanding that there be a huge change within the structure of universities. Rather, I'm making the fairly moderate plea that universities care more about their pupils; that they value teaching more than they currently do; that they strengthen existing mechanisms and bring in new ones to encourage better teaching. Universities need to reassess their obligations and consider whether their institution would be enriched if they placed a higher premium on teaching. This isn't a matter of cost. It's a matter of will.