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

, 11:15 am, Monday, 28 November, 2011

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

  1. Craig Best Reply

    Monday, 28 November, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    I have to admit the above Article has made my Monday morning much more entertaining than I first thought it would be. It appears that you have managed once again to capture totally the wrong side of campaigns and representational issues the Union of Brunel Students undertakes on behalf of its membership.

    I agree completely with “the notion that University is emphatically not about spoon-feeding and hand-holding through courses” but should be an equal partnership in learning. It fascinates me that article continues to suggest that as a democratically elected officer I am out of touch with students. As I was recently elected by the membership the students obviously thought I was not only the best person for the role, but also up to date with current issues. This issue formed part of my election manifesto, so they also knew what as well as who they were voting for. If the article had ventured into my manifesto prior to my election, then it would be even clearer that the argument in this article is ill founded.

    It is clear that the article has little substance and evidence to support its line of argument. It is true that the principle campaign is “To be Taught, Not Lectured” but no means does the campaign go about in suggesting that University should embark in School based learning. The campaign aims are based on the three principals of engage, challenge and inspire. I am happy to expand on these fully should you so wish. I am always happy in assisting budding journalists in doing their research – so that it can be factually correct and help them to develop a well rounded argument..

    I am very proud that an article has appeared in such length based on only 4 words, actually 6 if you included “coming soon”. In addition I must add that the comment that “The West Londoner attempted to contact Best prior to publication numerous times during office hours without success” is slightly misleading as it appears I have no personal email or voicemail from the West Londoner.

    If the West Londoner feels fit to comment on the campaigns that I do then I would be keen to have the right to reply. I look forward to another article that will fully inform on the aims and objectives of the campaign.

    I have attached my email and office number as it appears that you may not have these.

    vp.academicrep@brunel.ac.uk

    01895 267603

    Craig Best

    Vice-President Academic Representation

    • Gaz Corfield Reply

      Monday, 28 November, 2011 at 3:01 pm

      Your assertion that I did not contact you is false, as you would know if you asked your receptionist who I spoke to last week. I also called your direct line a good few times – if you do not wish to answer the phone, that is not my concern. Nevertheless, thank you for engaging with The West Londoner. I will be in contact with you shortly regarding your manifesto and a reply.

  2. Charlotte Reply

    Monday, 28 November, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Its bad enough that we live a culture which appears to have been dumbed down, but for that to have a direct affect on the education system too is most alarming. Anyone who thinks that reverting to school lesson style teaching, as if we have the maturity of 13 year olds, just shows that he or she should not be in university.
    I agree that to improve university education Craig Best should be campaigning for more seminars, as seminars often contain interesting class discussions which make students feel more enthusiasm for a topic and result in them wanting to research something in their own time for their own benefit.
    As a hard working third year Brunel student I am appalled at the implications this change could have for current Brunel students and recent graduates who have worked hard for their degree and earned it in the proper way. We must all fight against this, not just for the value of our own degree but for the integrity of our education.

  3. foamy606 Reply

    Monday, 28 November, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Student politics….the passions are so high because the stakes are so low. Even if Best wanted to do this I very much doubt he has the power!

  4. SarahW Reply

    Monday, 28 November, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Craig Best :[snip]
    As I was recently elected by the membership the students obviously thought I was not only the best person for the role, but also up to date with current issues.

    Don’t make the mistake of confusing popularity with ability. When I was a student, our Junior Common Room elected a vacuum cleaner (a certain J. Edgar Hoover) to be president.

    Out of interest, what proportion of current Brunel undergraduate students voted for you in the elections? Brunel has a little over 10,000 undergraduates. How many votes did you receive? Do you have an overwhelming mandate for your campaign?

    Craig Best : It is true that the principle [sic] campaign is “To be Taught, Not Lectured” but no means [sic] does the campaign go about in [sic] suggesting that [the] University should embark in [sic] School based learning. The campaign aims are based on the three principals[sic] of engage, challenge and inspire.

    Once upon a time it could be taken for granted that undergraduate students, whichever their degree subject, had a good grasp of the English language and could write concisely and accurately with few, if any, mistakes. That seems no longer to be the case.

    University shouldn’t be a place for remedial teaching that addresses the needs of undergraduates who failed to grasp the basics that were taught at school. Nor is university an ‘extension’ of school. It’s an entirely different beast where students are given the opportunity to learn for themselves but they have to seize that opportunity to get the benefit.

    Craig, if students at Brunel feel the need to change the university’s teaching methods because they aren’t getting very good marks under the current regime, I’d suggest it has more to do with their lack of ability or application than anything to do with the way they are being taught. Brunel has always been regarded as a very competent university and has never disgraced itself in league tables.

    It must be doing something right.

    Sarah

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