Archive for June, 2011

Is the student customer always right? A personal perspective

BBC News – Is the student customer always right?.

Today was the day that the much vaunted White Paper on Higher Education reform saw the light of day after months of procrastination. To say that the paper’s aims were ‘underwhelming’ would be akin to calling Everest ‘a pretty big hill’, but one of the big issues to emerge is the Government’s insistence in pushing through the idea of the ‘student customer’ (/shudder). After all (as the BBC points out), if students are the ones paying the wages of the staff, then surely they should be the ones who should be calling the shots?

I should say straight off the bat that I’d be more than a little bit disappointed if my students didn’t feel as though I (and my department) didn’t have their best interests at heart. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that I haven’t met a single academic who thinks that students are unimportant, and even (most of) the most grizzled and cantankerous academics I have encountered over the past few years recognise that students are at the core of much of what we do as lecturers and academics. And it’s the assumption that they’re not that I take issue with.

All universities have a vested interest in keeping students happy, which is why universities across the UK invest as much money as they can in new buildings, better internet provision, new books, reformed courses, and so forth. And there are many fine, dedicated, and professional academics and lecturers who go out of their way to go the extra mile for not just a couple of students, but as many as they can. That’s why we stay up till 2am in the morning prepping next week’s lecture. That’s why we forego our research days. And that’s why we give students our time as we rush out to yet another meeting/committee/lecture/seminar/conference/appointment.

There is, however, one other significant issue here. How do students, many of them barely 18 years old, know what constitutes a good education and a good degree? A new recruit wouldn’t go into the army and tell a major how to run the unit. Someone learning how to play football wouldn’t tell Alex Ferguson that his tactics are all wrong. A new hairdresser wouldn’t be let loose on a catwalk model’s hairdo. So why does the Government think that it’s ok to have future (new) students dictate (that might be too strong a word, but it might end up there) how a university department runs its degrees, or how a university runs itself?

The danger is that the demands of future students will manifest themselves in the form of new gym equipment, shiny new buildings, famous lecturers, and so on. And universities will be under pressure to give in to such demands, even if they are not in the student’s best interest of obtaining an education, in order to attract a healthy student population (and their fees).

Imagine a student who doesn’t agree that they should read an article or book per week (and consequently, they don’t). Imagine that this student also doesn’t believe in discussing the ideas they encounter. Lastly, imagine that this student doesn’t really think that learning the material is especially important (after all, that’s what Wikipedia’s for, right?). Is such a student really best placed to say what’s best for their education in the long-run?

Moreover, there is the worry is that a student (or a customer, whatever your preferred nomenclature is) thinks that because they pay £9000 per year that they should automatically be awarded a 2:1 irrespective of the lack of effort invested n their degree (after all, they paid for it). Think that this wouldn’t happen? You only have to take a look at the running commentary on ‘grade-grubbing’ by US academics and the number of times US students complain about their grades with the refrain ‘I pay your wages!’. Such instrumentalisation of degrees will descend upon the UK, if it’s not here in some shape or form already, as a result of the Government’s reforms.

So what’s the solution? In my opinion, the Government needs to stop the rhetoric of ‘students as customers’ and promote the idea that one goes to university to learn how to think, not simply to obtain a degree. There needs to be better investment in alternatives for school leavers which don’t rely on having a university degree. Students should apply to university based on their own desires, not because it’s touted as the ‘next stage’. And how many university entrants a school achieves shouldn’t be a criteria in school rankings. Looking back on that, it would seem that I’m arguing for no-one to go to university (I’m not, obviously!), but I believe that a student should sign up for a university degree because of a desire to learn, not because it’s the next step in life. Maybe it’s idealism, maybe it’s naivety, but whatever it is, it’s something I believe in and I think it’s something which has been lost over the last 15 years.

I recognise that there is a funding gap in Higher Education and I know that something has to be done to address it (although money was found for Libya funnily enough…), but if the line between ‘learner’ and ‘customer’ continues to be erased, my fear is that universities will simply become ‘degree mills’ rather than centres of academic and intellectual excellence which actually stand for something. And I don’t think anyone wants that.

First foray into the world of blogging


/taps heads thinking of a first witty blog post topic

/fails to think of a first witty blog post topic

/just type and see what happens

/fingers crossed

Ok, so first thing’s first. My name’s Rob and I’m a linguist. And a social one at that. Now, that’s not to say that all linguists are necessarily anti-social and I’m somehow the exception to the rule. Instead, it’s more a (poor) play on words. You see, not only am I a social linguist, but I’m also a sociolinguist. Of course, now you’re probably thinking to yourself ‘what’s a sociolinguist?’ and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s one of the less likely encountered job roles in modern day society, much like chimney-sweeps or candle-stick makers or competent call-centre workers.

Well, a sociolinguist is (generally) interested in the relationship between language and society. This is a bit of a cop-out all-encompassing term which covers a whole bunch of things. To give you a full picture of what sociolinguistics involves would take a lot more typing effort than I’m perhaps capable of in a first post, but I can at least give you a bit of a flavour of what kinds of things the field focuses on. For example, there are sociolinguists who are interested in language and gender (e.g. Deborah Cameron and Jennifer Coates), there are sociolinguists who are interested in political discourse (e.g. Ruth Wodak), there are sociolinguists who are interested in statistical analysis of speech data (e.g. William Labov) and there are sociolinguists who are interested in bilingualism and ethnicity (e.g. Carmen Fought). This is to say nothing about those researchers who focus on particular geographical areas, particular socio-demographic categories, particular levels of language (grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse) and particular types of data (written/spoken/computer mediated). So yeah, sociolinguistics is a pretty large field, but it’s also a relatively new one, especially compared to other fields of linguistics like grammar. Indeed, William Labov was the first researcher to conduct the first ‘proper’ sociolinguistic study out in Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts in the 1960s (I should say that I’m using quote marks here not because the study wasn’t actually a proper one, but mainly that although there are earlier studies which might fall under the term ‘sociolinguistic research’, it’s from Labov’s study that the term ‘sociolinguistic’ enters usage in mainstream linguistics terminology). What Labov found in Martha’s Vineyard was massively important in understanding how language and social issues were inextricably linked, but the whole story will have to wait until a future post.

So yeah, I’m a sociolinguist. As I said, it’s not a particularly common job designation and definitely not the kind of job I thought I’d end up doing when I was 16 years old (I wanted to join the RAF, but that’s also another story).

Well, that’s some of my academic background, but I probably should tell you a little bit more about who I am and what I’m doing infiltrating the blogosphere with my writing.

We’ve covered the fact that I’m a sociolinguist, but I’m also a university lecturer (most linguists are also academics. It’s the curse of the specialised job market we occupy. Linguistics isn’t usually something people take up as a hobby). I lecture at Birmingham City University and I’m not at all scared of putting that out into the public domain (honest!). One of the things I’ve been wrestling with over the past couple of years is the fact that academics are becoming more and more removed from the people and the things we’re supposed to be interested in (cities, people, art, literature, the public etc etc). We go away and we do this (occasionally very interesting) research. But then once the research is done, we seem to have a bad habit of keeping it all to ourselves and not sending it out into the ‘real world’ where it might actually have a demonstrable impact (I’ve been reliably informed the ‘real world’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This might have been one influencing factor on me staying in academia). And this idea of impact is something that the Research Councils UK (RCUK) are having a bit debate about at the moment: how far should research have ‘impact’ (another important question is; ‘what is impact?’).

This is my small attempt at establishing a ‘web presence’ and about trying to engage with those from outside academia (i.e. to do ‘impact’). After all, as academics, we have a responsibility to get our research out there into the public eye and to showcase the kind of cutting edge research that’s happening in universities. Unfortunately, UK academics have only really just started to hop on the blogging bandwagon and perhaps for good reason. It’s time-consuming, it’s an effort, and a blogger perhaps can’t put certain things out into the public domain since they’ve (willingly) divested their right to anonymity (at least if it’s a professional blog). Consequently, this isn’t (and can’t be) a blog about how much I hate my work, how awful the students are, and how much I can’t wait to leave (for the sake of clarity, I love my work, my students are awesome, and I really don’t want to leave). Instead, this blog is a place where I can talk about my research, about being an academic, a lecturer and a scholar, about the random and not-so-random going ons in my life, and really about whatever floats my boat.

I’m sure it will take a while to get a decent readership going (but really, who doesn’t want to read about F1 and F2 measurements of Glaswegian adolescent males??), and I’m sure I’ll learn loads as I go along. I want to do this properly and not ditch it in six months with four blog-posts, so I’m going to update regularly (plans are for every week at the moment) and I’ll try and talk about some of the interesting things I’m working on.

I’ve got a twitter-feed (@Dr_Bob82), so add me 🙂

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