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Painting by numbers: The problem with HE.

I read a report the other week about concern over the number of 1st degrees that are being achieved within higher education in the UK (Richmond, 2018) and the fact that the volume of such achievements is devaluing university degrees.  I juxtapose this with another report that states that 32% of students do not think they get value for money (Neves and Hillman, 2018) and the result is some soul searching about what it is I’m trying to achieve as a lecturer, aside from survival, and what higher education (HE) is about.  A conversation with a friend who works in Information Technology muddies the water even more.  He’s a high flyer, jetting backwards and forwards to the USA, solving problems, advising on, and implementing major change projects within large corporations and generally making a lot of money along the way.  For him a degree is not as important as the ability to ‘think outside the box’, find solutions to problems and show leadership that enables change or fixes.  If you have a degree then you ought to be able to do all these things to some extent, experience will then build on it. He lets on that his company will not touch graduates from certain universities, simply because they do not have the requisite skills or abilities, their degrees are effectively meaningless.  A sad generalisation but one that is becoming increasingly prominent amongst employers. One other thing that he was quick to point out is that the ‘real world’ is highly competitive and his company are looking for the best potential.

So, what is higher education all about, higher than what?  What is the benchmark and what is the end goal? I have always believed that higher education is about taking students beyond what can be read in books or can be followed in manuals. It is about enhancing the understanding of the world in which we operate, either professionally or socially and being able to redesign or reimagine that world.  It is about leadership in its many guises, problem solving and the ability to use initiative and autonomy. It is about moving a student from being able to paint by numbers under supervision to a student that can paint free hand, understanding light and colours, understanding how to capture moods or how to be evocative, a student who uses materials that they want to use, and they are not frightened to do so.  It stands to reason that not every student can achieve excellence.  If the starting point is the ability to paint by numbers, then some will move only slightly beyond this and some will excel, but only a few will warrant a 1st degree. What is clear though is that the students really ought to be able to paint by numbers before they enter HE otherwise they will need to be taught that skill before they can move on.  That then is no longer higher education but further education (FE) and more importantly, it sets students up to fail, if they are being measured against HE standards.  An alternative to avoid this potential failure requires HE standards to be lowered to those of FE.  In which case what is the point of HE?

So why would I be confused about HE?  Well, when students are seen as cash cows, each being worth £9250 a year to an institution, being able to paint by numbers becomes a barrier to recruitment in a highly competitive market.  Institutions can help students that do not have the requisite skills, but this requires either extra time before joining the HE course, this has funding implications, or a lot of extra work by the student during the HE course, and this means that students with limited academic ability struggle. A need to retain students over the three-year period of a degree, to ensure institutional financial stability or even viability, becomes problematic.  Struggling students have a double whammy, they have to catch up to the starting point for each year, whilst also progressing through the year.  The choices are stark for HE institutions, progress students by lowering standards or lose them.

HE institutions are measured on the number of good degrees and it makes for good advertising. There is enough literature around to suggest that such unsophisticated quantitative measures are never a good thing.  The complexity of higher education, where there is a heavy reliance on students engaging in their studies (there is something to be said about reading for a degree), puts much of the achievement of grades beyond the control of lecturers or even institutions.  The resultant solution appears to be the lowering of assessment standards and teaching to assessments.  In effect, HE is falling in line with FE and teaching students to paint by numbers.  It is easy to see why there is disquiet then about an increase in 1st degrees and more importantly, in a competitive world, why employers are becoming increasingly concerned about the value of a degree.  As for value for money for students, for many, it’s a bit like being charged a fortune to race a Maserati round a track for a day but not being able to drive.

Neves, J. and Hillman, N. (2018) Student Academic Experience Survey report 2018 [online] available at https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/student-academic-experience-survey-report-2018 [accessed 20 June 2018]

Richmond, T. (2018) A degree of uncertainty: An investigation into grade inflation in universities. [online] available at, http://www.reform.uk/publication/a-degree-of-uncertainty-an-investigation-into-grade-inflation-in-universities/ [accessed 20 June 2018].

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Netflix and Study?

netflix and study

Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

As each year and each term goes by, it brings to light how much more we are all connected through media and also how we use media to socialise and also learn.

Now, watching television, movies and using music to learn is not a new concept, I understand this, but on a personal level, I have found more individuals using television and more specifically, crime documentaries to fuel their interest in criminology and their understanding of elements of the criminal justice system.

I believe firstly, the idea of enjoying, what is termed ‘binge watching’, crime documentaries, an interesting concept. As previously explored on the blog regarding ‘enjoyment’ and ‘fun’ of criminology, the themes in these documentaries are very dark and in most cases, the gorier it is, the more it seems to be enjoyed by some viewers. Each September that rolls around we have the (sometimes dreaded) ‘ice breaker’ session, where we get to know our students and what has made them want to pursue a criminology degree at this University. Within that you will always have some who choose to voice their love of a certain crime TV show. This does not always end at first introductions either, there is often a continuation of comparisons made between that of a serious historical event and that of Netflix documentary (for example) which can often contain more dramatic music and pictures than it does criminological discussion.

The question I would like to present is, do we nourish the idea of using documentaries and crime dramas to keep the interest of those who wish to pursue criminology as a field of learning, or would doing so be disingenuous to what criminology is and neglect the love for reading and debates in criminology? I do not necessarily feel this is a question we have to worry about tremendously as I feel those who seek to study criminology purely based on their love for crime documentaries will either soon realise that there is so much of criminology that does not fit those ideas and either love it or abandon it at that point.

But in years to come these questions may be more significant than they are currently. Especially if used as a tool in universities to attract more students into a certain discipline. There are such large elements of criminology that I feel have to be explored with literature or within a seminar setting with questions and debates, and it can be easy for institutions to say that these elements will always be fundamental to a criminology degree for years to come.  However, if other institutions start to use more and more media and visual aids to demonstrate a theory or issue of crime in the future, or what I suspect more as a marketing campaign to attract students, will we conform? There are some articles (from questionable sources) that some institutions are using Snapchat and social media takeovers to help attract students to certain courses, most of which I have read about have been media based, granted.  But let’s hope all this drivelling nonsense is just my brain after a long bank holiday weekend and not a possibly looming prospect of the future of criminology, right?

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