Why Higher Education in the UK Is Nothing More Than a Tick-Box Culture

If I talk about assessments to students, here is what I say. Writing an essay is your way of writing about a topic that interests you. Of making new discoveries. And of having your say. It is a chance to be creative and to push yourself.

Imagine this scenario. A patient is in a critical condition, and a surgeon decides to operate. But before she can operate, the rules are that another doctor in the hospital has to review her notes and the patient's history, and agree that an operation is needed. Then she needs a pre-board meeting, where she discusses her conclusions, and a team made up of all of the doctors in her department needs to agree to her decision. Once her decision has passed a pre-board, then it needs to go through a board meeting, where a doctor from another hospital needs to be present to agree to her decision - if there are not enough doctors to form a quorum at this meeting, then this board meeting needs to be re-scheduled. All of this has to be backed-up by a copious amount of paperwork. After all this, she is given the go ahead to operate. But, er, sorry, the patient is dead.

And now imagine this. This is not a rare occurrence. She has to go through this entire process for every single medical decision that she takes.

Does this sound a little far-fetched and ridiculous?

As an academic, I have just as many years of education as a physician or surgeon, yet I have to go through this entire process every time I mark a student's essay or presentation. Not as an occasional audit. No. I have to go through this process for everything I mark. It doesn't matter if I have a year of teaching experience, fifteen, or thirty. I am never going to be trusted to be able to mark an essay. Every time I do, I need a minimum of a second-marker, an external marker, a pre-board and a board meeting to approve what I have done.

I've now taught in arts and humanities programmes for six years in the United States, and seven in the U.K. The contrasts between the two systems are startling. Even as a PhD student in the States, I made my own syllabus, set my own assessments, and marked my own essays. There was a process of evaluation, certainly. It included professors looking over my syllabus and giving suggestions, if needed. It also included periodic student evaluations and reviews. But it wasn't assumed that I was some kind of slow-learning nitwit bird who no matter if they encountered the same glass window for fifteen years, would keep on smashing right into it, and in proper Britney Spears-style would scratch their head dolefully and say, "Oops I did it again." It was assumed in the States that if I had approximately seven years of post-graduate training, I could more or less be trusted to mark a student's essay.

When I moved back to the U.K. from the States after my PhD, I was confronted with a wall of English bureaucracy. This wall - no, a fortress - dogs every move I make as a British academic. Needless to say, when the first realization of what I'd got myself into hit, shock and awe were my main emotions. In the States, if I decided I wanted to assign my students two essays to write during a term, and say, do a creative presentation, I could do it instantaneously. Here, in this country, I can only do that if that is the exact way it's been done before by other lecturers teaching that class.

If in a given term, there's this amazing opportunity for the students to do, say, an apprenticeship with a company that happens to be in town during their module and does amazing, relevant work in the area, and I want them to make a portfolio based on this apprenticeship - can I just implement such a thing? Nope. I need to - you guessed it - go through a minimum of a year's worth of pre-boards, boards, external reviews, and endless paperwork to make the tiniest change. Forget the darn apprenticeship. If I want students to write two essays, each 2000 words, with an equal weighting of 50%, but the established module prescription says it needs to be two essays with 60% and 40% weighting respectively, I still have to go through exactly the same process. Ditto for any creative innovations to the curriculum.

When I complain about the red-tape in this country, fellow academics roll their eyes and shake their heads - yes, they say, isn't it awful? And yet, if questioned further, many of them go on to mutter words like "parity" and "standardization." And I realize to my horror that many academics are not only putting up with the red tape, they are buying into it. They are trained to become researchers and artists of international standing, yet they are losing hours and hours of energy and time that could be better spent in creative teaching, fair marking, and high-level research, and instead putting it into the recycled pettiness of form-filling, box-ticking, and head-nodding at meetings. As school teachers often complain, so much of their time is spent in showing that they are doing their job, they don't actually have the time to do it.

If Marx were still alive, I bet he'd have something to say about how this endless red-tape not only makes sure that we produce a mass of graduates who may not be the most creative, intellectual or spontaneous people in the world but certainly tick the parity and standardization boxes, but we are also making sure that academics who could be doing creative research are constantly put in their place. They are reminded on a regular basis that they are no more than cogs in the academic machinery, and like every other machinery, British academia is guided only by the economic concerns of those in power.

A research assessment exercise (the dreaded REF) was conducted all over the country last year. Every department in the country had to show what research it had been doing for the previous five years. As the deadline approached, it isn't difficult to imagine a frantic round of redundancies and recruitments, based on universities wanting to show that they had international stars on their payroll. If in some departments, this panic became dirty or political, and jealousies and rivalries rose to the surface, then I guess it made people realize something that should be obvious to all of us anyway - our recruitment, promotion, and advancement depend on research.

That's as it should be. After all, you've put enormous resources into doing a PhD. Your advancement, as well as your department's, should be based on research - hopefully without the dirty politics. Yet, instead of encouraging staff to spend their time doing research, you hear bosses say, "But you know you only get one day a week to do your research," or worse, "You have the summer to do research, you don't need to do it in the academic term." Brilliant research goes on in this country, but it is done by academics who fight an on-going battle with the alarming amount of admin and red-tape thrown at them by the system. If creative artists and academics decide to leave academia, or go part-time, or they leave to teach in the States or other parts of Europe, the system in this country has nothing but itself to blame.

This brings me to another thing that I hear academics say that fills me with dread for the future. "We are running a business, and we have to treat our students as consumers," they say. (I have to pause here and shudder before I can go on typing.) This is our responsibility as academics? If our students come in complaining that their new shoes pinch and their hats are too big, we just change them?

It is important to listen to complaints from students. Yet, to react in a trigger-happy way at students' complaints suggests, again, that instead of trusting years of education and teaching experience, we are saying that eighteen-year-olds know best how they should be educated. Ask any parent and they will tell you that this is a self-destructive way of thinking.

Here is an example of this. In the last few years, I've noticed that when students say that assessment periods stress them out, administrators in the university frantically change policies, and advise academics to set fewer assessments.

But there is an alternative to this kind of shotgun approach.

If I talk about assessments to students, here is what I say. Writing an essay is your way of writing about a topic that interests you. Of making new discoveries. And of having your say. It is a chance to be creative and to push yourself. And when you push yourself, when you strive to go beyond what you already know, and who you are, then there is stress attached to that. The process of growing up, being creative, stretching your creative and critical muscles is stressful. Ask anyone who is a leader in their profession. A university education should challenge you, it should turn you inside out and make you new and shiny. If it isn't doing that, if you are breezing through, without big emotional and intellectual challenges, then something isn't going right.

As an academic in higher education, my job isn't just to teach the curriculum and help students get a job. It is to help students become critical thinkers, ask questions about the world, learn how to be more creative. To grow as people. Every time I get bogged down with ticking boxes, every time I get embroiled in the endless changes in red-tape that are thrown at me by administration in the name of "teaching and learning," every time I get sucked in by an endless annual cycle of petty form filling and constant evaluation, I am failing miserably to do my job.

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