OPINION: What Do Students Expect From University and What Do Universities Expect From Them?

As a new cohort of students prepare themselves to enter university for the first time I wonder how many of them have a realistic and informed understanding of what a university education consists of and what the expectation of them is as students at the university they are about to join.

Perhaps the most important consideration for any student about to dedicate three years of their lives and make a large financial commitment is the one they have least help in addressing from both the institutions they are leaving and those that they are joining. That of expectation.

The concept that universities are places where you are taught how to learn and not told what to learn (let alone the concept of university as research centre) is an alien one to many students who have spent their academic careers until that point being tested on information they have previously been given aided by a daily teacher support system.

If the students expectation is that university is going to be a continuation of the same learning journey they have been on for the past thirteen years the discovery that it is not can lead to alienation and anxiety. This feeling of disconnection with the learning process that they understood combined with the social issues of moving away from home, having to meet new people, live with strangers and take responsibility for their day-to-day lives can prove to be a toxic cocktail of emotional issues.

If you add to this cocktail the role of the lecturer being employed on an ‘hours’ basis (a basis rarely explained to the student) not as a ‘nine-to-three, five days a week teacher’ a sense of student alienation with the process and institution is all to obvious an outcome.

The introduction in the UK of considerable fees has placed this level of student expectation onto a ‘value for money’ status. Students believe that the fees they are paying are paying for their personal education. Like buying a car they think they are buying a car for themselves not funding a whole fleet of cars, the garage that sold it to them, the people that sold it to them and the growth of the company that made the car. How their fees are actually spent is not explained to them creating a sense of discontentment often voiced through student surveys.

Of course every students expectation is simple that the course that they are about to begin will teach them everything they need to know to secure a good degree and consequently a good job and career.

This is reasonable as this is how institutions and courses promote themselves. But with the dramatically rising incidences of mental health issues within Higher Education is this enough? Should colleges and universities be working harder in explaining expectation? I believe so.

If students were made more aware of what the expectation of them is by a university and degree level learning earlier in their learning journey I believe that they would be more prepared for the reality of being at university. The way in which universities run, how lecturers are employed, what lecturers responsibilities are, how contact time is delivered and how their fees are spent would also help to turn a students ill-informed expectation of a university into an informed and realistic one.

It would also ensure that the decision making process of whether or not they are ready to start at university, the university they choose and the course that they choose are informed decisions based upon a realistic expectation of what their time and financial investment may or may not give them.

This is particularly important in an increasingly competitive marketplace environment where places at university are easy to achieve with the most basic of GCSE passes and grades even for those not ready for university education.

When expectations are not met both sides are disappointed in any transaction. In the case of a university this can mean low student retention, in the case of the student it can lead to depression and related mental health issues. The former has financial and league table consequences, the latter is far more serious.

Grant Scott is the founder of the Contact Sheet and collaborator in the #ConnectedClasses research project. He is a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).

© Grant Scott 2016


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