Is the university experience worse than 40 years ago?

”I don’t think the university experience is nearly as good for students as it was 40 years ago. There are a number of changes, but most important is teaching is taken much less seriously than it used to be.”

- Robert Manne, The Age, 19 January 2013

I suspect he’s right that senior academics spend less time talking to and mentoring the most intellectually engaged and able undergraduate students than they did 30 or 40 years ago. But for the average student academics generally probably do a better job of organising and presenting their course materials, and this is showing in increased student satisfaction with teaching.

The data is from the Course Experience Questionnaire, run by Graduate Careers Australia. The figure appears in the 2013 edition of Mapping Australian higher education, to be released tomorrow night. (Update: out now.)

  1. “I suspect he’s right that senior academics spend less time talking to and mentoring the most intellectually engaged”

    It’s certainly right because everyone simply has less time due to bigger student numbers.

    “But for the average student academics generally probably do a better job of organising and presenting their course materials”

    1) Or they teach simpler stuff, which often appears better to the learner.
    2) Or it is easier to appeal to groups that have less expectations than the elite that used to be the main group going to universities.
    3) Or the textbooks etc. are better, which students incorrectly attribute to the teacher.
    4) Or students are happier due to grade inflation.

  2. My first university lecture was an Applied Mathematics lecture at La Trobe in 1978 in which the lecturer spent an hour writing in chalk across three blackboards and facing and speaking to the blackboards whilst we students laboriously copied by hand what he was scrawling on the board. A contemporary undergraduate used to PowerPoint shows with lots of links to videos and graphics, and able to access the lectures 24-7 through Lecture Capture, Blackboard, etc., would notice the difference if she was transported back 35 years. Also, the technology creates pedagogical options for academics that they didn’t have back in the days of chalk.

  3. Personally, one of the biggest influences on my university experience was not anything to do with the university at all, but rather financial necessity. For me, life as a undergraduate student involved a lot of exhaustion from juggling casual jobs with my studies. I had some amazing lecturers whose lectures I sometimes had to miss to work so I could keep my casual jobs, and sometimes I ran out of money and food, which made concentrating difficult. Perhaps I wasn’t that good at budgeting but sometimes there were financial mishaps like having my wallet stolen on pay-day.

    So I wonder about that aspect of students’ life these days. It seems like rent, food, and electricity are more expensive relative to other things than they used to be, which is what I spent most of my money on back then; and now things that I didn’t need to have like a mobile phone, a computer, and an internet connection have become expected and are probably essential for students. I worry that it must be very difficult for young people at university to support themselves financially these days.

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