A Tale Of Two Universities

This article is originally from the Guardian Newspaper website and can be found here. I have posted it here because I think it highlights the frustrations that many people feel at Manchester University of being on a production line of education in a university which only cares about research and making money, and not about its students.

…oh and three of my mates are the ones being interviewed 🙂

“Students at Manchester University are getting a very different deal from those at the city’s ex-poly”

David Ward
Tuesday October 31, 2006
The Guardian

There are two universities on the same city-centre highway at the heart of the biggest student campus in Europe: Manchester (founded in 1851, merged with Umist in 2004, 36,000 students) and Manchester Metropolitan (MMU, a former polytechnic, 33,000 students).

We have arranged to meet three Manchester students in a bar on Oxford Road at the unstudenty hour of 9am, to ask them about how they are taught. Later, we pluck three MMU students off the street as they head to the library.

So this is hardly a scientific survey, more a snapshot. But we find our University of Manchester trio, all in their final year, uneasy about the teaching they have received: not so much the quality, but the quantity. In contrast, the MMU three, barely four weeks into their courses, are buoyant and positive.

Becky Brown, 19, is taking a course in environmental studies at MMU. “I have about eight lectures a week, plus three hours of lab work,” she says. “So my timetable is busy. I’ve quite a lot of assignments already – they can involve group work or writing up research. You get enough time for them; one is due in next week.

“Lectures are for at least 40 people in a big lecture room. But we also have seminars in smaller groups of 10 to 15, and that is much more concentrated. That’s a time to talk to your lecturer if you have any questions about anything. They are very eager to help you.”

Compare that with the experience of Stephanie Whaley, 20, who is studying linguistics at Manchester. “I haven’t written one essay yet. Not one person on the linguistics degree course has written an essay. Last year, we had no coursework – it was all exam-based. I’m doing my first piece of coursework now.”

She gets about 11 hours of teaching a week, the same as in her first two years. “The smallest lecture has about 70 people in it. I have not had any one-to-one tuition and not one of my lecturers knows my name. I don’t know them personally and my personal tutor doesn’t know me.

“We have seminars every two weeks, each with about 40 students. They are in big rooms and are very impersonal. Because the course is so big, and people don’t really know each other, they are not very interactive. Everyone is a stranger. This is not what I expected.”

Her friend Siobhan Moroney, 21, now in the final year of her Manchester history course, is quick to praise her personal tutor. “I email him and within half an hour he will reply. He is very good if I want to see him face-to-face.” But she has many reservations about other aspects of her course. “I have only four hours on my timetable, made up of two two-hour seminars. So for each course, I get to see the tutor once a week for two hours. I find that quite shocking, to have only four hours and be left to your own devices for the rest of the week.

“In my first year, I had about nine or 10 hours on my timetable, but that was cut down to four in my second year, because they thought we had too much contact time. Even in my first year, I didn’t think the time was enough to get feedback. One of my classes now has 40 people in it, the other 20. I don’t expect to be spoonfed, but it would be nice to have a bit more one-on-one time.”

Perhaps the University of Manchester students came with expectations that were too high; perhaps final-year blues have set in. Whatever the explanation, there is no trace of collective gloom among the MMU three.

Gary Felce, 19, an environmental science student, has six hours of classes a week, plus lab work. “I have a very full day on Tuesday, from 9am to 4pm, or even 6pm, with a combination of lectures and lab sessions. But on Monday I have only one lecture. I’m happy with the amount of teaching I’m getting and the quality is quite good, with handouts and notes to go along with the lectures. At the moment, we are doing quite a bit of group work, which is assessed, and we also have to do assignments and reports.”

Nadia Ukhayat, 18, is reading ecology at MMU and has six hours of lectures a week, followed by lab sessions lasting up to two and a half hours. “But we are left enough time to do our own study. One-to-one tuition is not on our timetable, but help is available if we need it. Lectures can be with 100 students and we have workshops with smaller groups of about 15.”

Chris Andrews, 21, is in the final year of his psychology course at the University of Manchester. With a dissertation to write, he now sees a member of staff once a week, with three other students. But his contact with academics has not always been as close. “I have four hours of teaching – two two-hour lectures. One is a seminar-based lecture and the other is for about 90 of us. Today I have my first lecture in a classroom in three years, with about 35 of us there. Until this year, there would be 270 of us in a lecture theatre.

“We never had one-on-one sessions with a lecturer. We didn’t have seminars until this year – it was just lectures and occasionally a lab class, with 90 students there. We are paying all this money in tuition fees and we have had no one-on-one contact.

“We have certain office hours when we can see a member of staff. But as I understand it, the psychology lecturers have to be actively researching as part of the university’s drive to make itself a world-class institution. Mondays and Wednesday are designated research days and there are no lectures for anyone.”

Contact with his tutors, says Andrews, is almost exclusively by email, supplemented by online questionnaires in which students report their own perceptions of their progress. “It’s a lot different from what I thought it would be. It’s a lot more impersonal than I expected. You feel very isolated and your only connection with the university is to go to a lecture with almost 300 other people.”

A spokesman for Manchester University says: “It is true that in many programmes there are relatively few teaching hours during the final year; independent study is something we look to develop in all our students, and especially in the final year.

“Contact time differs greatly, however, depending on the specific discipline. For example, a final-year engineering student would spend much less time on private study and more time with peers and tutors. If a student is concerned about their progress, they have access to a personal tutor as well as the tutor of their course, and to our confidential academic advisory service, with specially trained academic staff who can help students to make informed decisions.”

MMU’s vice-chancellor, Professor John Brooks, says: “We try to ensure that our students get a good learning experience and that they are challenged to take ownership of their own learning. We recognise the importance of structure and class contact, and I am pleased that the efforts of our staff have been recognised by students surveyed. Not all students appreciate the workload but most do value the contact with staff.”

5 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two Universities

  1. Hi, I’ve enjoyed your articles. I just wanted to say that yes, Manchester University is turning out to be quite a rubbish uni. Soon we’ll be taking on MMU’s (undeserved?) reputation for mickey mouse degrees, and instead MMU will be known as the leading university in Manchester. I personally feel lost in this huge beast that is Manchester University, and getting 1-to-1 tutoring is extremely difficult. The quality of teaching we get is often unbelievably poor, that is, if you can actually understand what’s being said.

    The question that most final-year students must ask now is: Will I want my degree certificate to say “The University of Manchester”, or “The VICTORIA University of Manchester/UMIST”?

  2. Joe,

    Thank you for commenting. I’d like to pick up on the language barrier comment. It is further testament to the university’s research-centric attitude that foriegn lecturers are only assessed on their research/academic ability and not on their ability to teach or speak english fluently. On the contrary, every student from a non-english speaking nation, even those who may have spoken english all their lives or use it as their first language, are subject to an english profficiency test. Double standards eh?

  3. I could go on and on about my lecturers’ language skills, but I won’t, because I suppose every student must have had at least one lecturer who was crap at English.

    I once spoke to an Engineering professor at Manchester University (over a curry, image that!), and I casually remarked that I can’t understand most of my lecturers because of their accents. He said “I can’t understand why; lecturers are offered FREE language skills sessions. I don’t see why they should remain bad at the language, yet teach university-level subjects!”

    I’m not too sure if that’s true, but if it is, would it reflect more on the attitude and apathy of the lecturers rather than the university itself?

    I’ve tried everything: I’ve written to the head of school, met a head of department, spoken to the course reps about it; yet we don’t see anything being done.

    If you’re doing economics (I think you are?) you might have come across the lecturer for micro (2nd sem) last year. I remember quite clearly how nearly 100 students walked out on him after the first hour. Only 20 students remained. I wasn’t one of them.

    Sorry for the rant. 🙂

  4. Its all too sad and true I’m afraid.

    I’ve heard of this lecturer you talk of, however I dropped all econ theory to do maths and stats after my first year! I can deal with numbers.

  5. The opinions expressed in this article are hardly illuminating, and indeed, sound more like whinging students.

    The quality of an education is not something that can be expressed in contact-hours, especially at an advanced level. I am taking an MA in English at Manchester, and have four hours a week of contact (admittedly in very manageably class sizes). Is that too little? hell no! It’s all I can do to keep up with preparation for them.

    The issue here should not be contact-hours, but class sizes. My final year seminars were 25-strong, a total disgrace, and totally impossible for any serious discussion to take place. Of course, the university administration are more than somewhat disinterested.

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