ON LINE  opinion  - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

Getting a university education is not like grocery shopping

By Tara Brabazon
Posted Friday, 17 November 2006

Maybe it was the vision of Jamie Oliver trudging through commercials in a fat suit chastising parents for poisoning their children with a fry up. Perhaps it was breakfast television’s fixation with supermarket packaging and pricing. Possibly, it was the decline of Brand Beckham or a fixation on the upcoming Ashes series. But there are few spaces in the Australian or British media for an informed and careful discussion about the role, function, expectations and hopes of higher education.

My apologies to On Line Opinion readers for asking gentle questions about education at the moment that the Australian educational year winds down and the UK academic semester heats up. Since leaving Australia three months ago to take up a new job, I have read a range of British journalists offering their views on universities. This journey through Newman-lite has not been pleasant reading. Nostalgic baby boomers have summoned an era when they drank warm beer and vomited cold chips for most of the term, only to pull an all-nighter before an exam and gain a first.

These journalistic memories were offered to ridicule the implementation of university contracts, where students sign a statement confirming lecture attendance and full participation in the educational process. Yet such agreements between students and universities are not controversial, radical or wrong. When we start a new job, a contract is a statement of expectations. When we marry, the vows are meant to cut through the banality of dresses, cakes and floral arrangements to confirm the seriousness of pledging a life to another person.

University, like employment or marriage, signals a new stage in our lives. It must challenge truths and expectations. It is not a continuation of school. It is a rupture in our assumptions about learning and thinking.

University is a much more difficult, ruthless and aggressive environment than students have experienced through overstuffed timetables and caring councillors at high school. The reading is harder, the scholarly matrix is challenged through the newest findings in the field rather than dated textbooks, and the writing they produce must be evocative and well referenced. Googlers, bloggers and wiki editors need not apply. Contracts are one way to remind students that they are entering into a new environment with expectations that must be met.

Such contracts were not necessary when these baby boomer journalists disembarked off the ark, two by two, and stumbled into the university pub. Entering higher education before the late 1980s was an experience of the elite or the fortunate. Most had the support of parents who had attended university and school friends who shared the excitement of this new scholarly world.

Our current students are often the first members of their family to attempt higher education. Many come from homes without books. I understand this challenge and change. When I arrived at the leafy campus with the sandstone buildings, it was like entering a foreign country. Everyone - seemingly - had a “toffo” accent, new cars and knew about writers and books that were beyond my limited life. It was a club to which only the rich and well connected were welcomed. I was continually embarrassed, unsure of what to wear, where to go, what to think, what to read, what to write, what to do.

While our confident critics can chortle at contracts and laugh at those who pull themselves away from the bar to attend lectures, for a large group of students in our current system, a statement of expectations is incredibly useful. Contracts are one way to enact this process. There are others that may be more appropriate, but this process is an attempt to reveal assumptions and expectations that can no longer be taken for granted.

The problem is that the disrespect of teaching, learning and academics through the last few years leaves few options for university managers. For example, Marcel Berlins in his Guardian column in mid September this year asked, “what about those clever students who believe that they can do better by going to the library than by attending second-rate lectures?” Through this declaration, he has imposed his template of education onto others. Actually, “clever” students need to attend the library and lectures. Though his words, he summons - flippantly - a damaging and inaccurate presentation of academic life.

Academics not only teach but also conduct original research. While respecting and valuing all segments of our educational sector, these dual functions - of teaching and research - render our context distinct from high school and primary school.

What students hear in lectures is not available in library books because academics have not only read a suite of scholarship but have written their own, offering dynamic interpretations and new knowledge. Reading high quality monographs and refereed articles is crucial to learning, but it is the starting point of the educational journey, not the end.

The time taken to prepare a teaching and learning session varies, but let me counter Berlins’ personal experience of “second-rate lectures” with my own. Each session I write takes at least ten days to select and organise scholarly materials. When working in a new field, the research can take six weeks to complete. From this research base, each lecture takes a full - and long - day to write, with another to prepare the sonic and visual media. In the week of the lecture’s delivery, I spend 20 hours, generally in the early hours of the morning or when riding on trains, putting the session to memory.

This is the preparatory process for every lecture, for every course, for every year. Now that we actually have a process - rather than a journalistic pontification - in place, we can start to understand the value of a lecture. If critics such as Berlins believe that “clever” students can walk into a library and either replicate or better the teaching and learning matrix of experienced academics, then I am sure he can be convinced that England will win the Ashes again. Nostalgia and confidence is never a replacement for research and experience.

University academics do not simply disseminate knowledge: we create it. I am certain there are still a few scholars throughout the world that write a few headings on the back of a fag packet and head into the auditorium. I have never met one. The staff I see in our contemporary universities spend long stretches of their professional lives improving teaching materials, discussing learning strategies with colleagues and independently buying new monographs that libraries cannot afford to purchase.

It is necessary to find a mechanism - through contracts or compassion - to show students that university education is a gift to be respected. Once a lecture is missed, there is no way to recapture that session. They may download some PowerPoint slides or even hear a recording, but the energy and excitement of a group of scholars experiencing a new idea and challenging conventional thought cannot be found through a digital download. The exhilaration of thinking about new ideas in a community and a context is revelatory and rare.

Some journalists may judge our universities by the worst academics that disrespect undergraduate teaching. Conversely, we can celebrate and recognise the extraordinary innovations of the best scholars. To put it another way, and translated into my new context, I can acknowledge the athletic and cricketing brilliance of Monty, or I can judge British masculinity by the bloke in boat shoes and cargo pants wandering down the dessert aisle at Tescos.

Because of the nostalgia and misunderstandings marinating higher education, students have absorbed and perpetuated a disrespect of teaching and learning.

In The Independent newspaper in the week before the induction and orientation for British universities, Harriet Swain reported the words of David Childs, a student who had completed a degree in environmental management at the University of Wales in Newport. The headline - “We’ll put the law on you” - captures the argument of the piece. Yet below the bluster, Childs offered the clearest rationale for why academics must increase our public voice to explain the benefits and function of University teaching. This graduate of a three-year degree had the confidence to state, “We are consumers … and the system hasn’t caught up”.

Childs is not a consumer. No student - none of us - can buy knowledge. The “system” to which he refers is a delicate matrix formed by intellectual respect for the scholars that preceded us and creative, future-oriented interrogations of new ideas, methods and theories. Students, staff and the wider community must construct, acknowledge and maintain high standards in curriculum, methods and assessment.

But these indicators are the lowest of benchmarks. We must aim higher than generic competencies, graduate attributes and skill development. We must move beyond servicing consumers in an information factory.

Those of us in the United Kingdom are powering through our new academic year. The Australian term is reaching its conclusion, only to reboot in February. But as we look into the eyes of our bright and promising undergraduates, the time has come to live fully and honestly in our educational present.

Students have expectations, but so do staff. Missing a lecture is not like running the battery down on a mobile phone, knowing that for every missed call there will be a message. So many educational experiences are exceptional and extraordinary. Three of the most startling moments in my life emerged in lecture theatres. In these brittle and delicate flashes of insight, my world changed. These seismic shifts in ideas would not have happened in the bar. Good teaching changes lives.

If nostalgic journalists and disgruntled students continue to complain and blame, then all the energy, dynamism and passion will be crushed out of our universities. In response, academics must remember, protect and affirm how lives are transformed through learning, and how learning is transformed through life.

Tara Brabazon is the Professor of of Education and Head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University.

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