Screw the jargon, let’s talk about our problems: a response to the Enhancement-led Institutional Review

Professor Tina Harrison, Assistant Principal Academic Standards and Quality Assurance, was this morning “delighted to report that the quality of the student experience at Edinburgh has been recognised by the body tasked with monitoring the quality of Higher Education in Scotland” in an email sent out to all students at the University.  In this email she rightfully draws attention to the fact that the University has achieved “many areas of ‘positive practice’”, such as the Edinburgh Award, the report also recognises the University’s great work on Online Distance Learning, Peer Assisted Learning, and the “Internationalisation of the student experience”. However, Professor Harrison’s email conveniently skirts over mentioning what exactly it is that the University is falling short on in this latest review.

The draft report draws attention to the fact that Edinburgh University needs to address the following areas for development: postgraduate research student experience, the personal tutoring system, student representation at school level, assessment and feedback, and staff engagement in learning and teaching. Essentially, the University is falling short in its approach to marking, ensuring the student voice is heard, and having staff who are engaged with students on a personal level. We all already knew, that the personal tutor system tends to simply be a glorified administrative assistant who will help you tick the ‘matriculated student?’ box at the beginning of each academic year.  We all already knew that the marking of essays and submitted assignments tends to be inconsistent and in need of serious standardisation. We do not need an external report to tell us that students feel that their work is not always fairly marked, or that they feel alienated from the management structures of the university – this much should be evident after a minute long conversation with any of the many students at this institution.

This raises the essential issue that we need to move away from management speak when communicating the results of external assessment of the university, and that we need to apportion as much focus to the failings of the university as we do to its successes. There is little point in praising the success of the Edinburgh Award in an email to the entire student body, and in the same email omitting the fact that we have been identified as falling short on our commitment to the student academic experience. Why are we spending millions on a tunnel into McEwan hall when we could be using that money on expanding the size of the teaching body to improve the student:staff ratio, or maybe even to give a much deserved pay rise to our already existent staff?

In short, screw the jargon. Let’s address our issues with the clarity and efficiency that comes with talking straight. Yes, not everything we find will be something to add to the gleaming prospectuses that you can pick up in the gift shop – but personally I have far more respect for institutions which are frank and open about their failings, because it shows that they care and that they are sincere about fixing their failings. At open days you are bombarded with spin and dazzled with league tables, every University I visited whilst still at college and puzzling through UCAS seemed to declare itself the best in the world at this or that. At Edinburgh University, it goes without saying that you are at an excellent institution and that we succeed in so much, but that means that we need to stop wasting our time repeating it at every opportunity. Public facing conversations need to focus on how we can fix our problems, and should not be used as PR opportunities.

If we are going to sort out the student experience at Edinburgh we need direct conversations and direct action. If the roof is falling in on a house, you don’t need an architect to tell you just how gorgeous the tiles in the bathroom are.

The full report can be found here:
http://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/edinburgh_university_early_draft_outcome_report_at_friday_20_november.pdf

Image: Dun Deagh (Flickr)

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