By Ian Kinchin
Is there a trend within higher education that parallels the general trend in society, from ‘evidence-based’ to ‘post-truth’? There has been a trend (that I have been aware of for several months, though it has probably been going on for very much longer) of a move away from research and data towards a justification of claims in the media by using statements such as, ‘a lot of people think that’. This trend has been played out very publicly in elections in the UK and in the US in the past year, where it seems that if you say something often enough and loud enough, then it will be accepted as part of the canon. Maybe that has always been so? But when we have Government ministers on the TV telling us that we shouldn’t listen to experts because sometimes they can get things wrong, it does sound like Homer-Simpson-reasoning.
We seem to be witnessing a similar trend in higher education where ideas seem to be distorted to fit political and economic aims. If you are really cynical, you might go back through press cuttings and see a move from ‘evidence-based’ to ‘student-centred’ to ‘post-truth’. I am not arguing against student-centredness here, but I am aware of the ways that is can be miss-represented so that the phrase ‘but the students want it’ seems to trump other arguments without any real analysis of what or why. But there is a question (probably many) here about what students want, which students want it and why students want it – whatever ‘it’ might be. There also seem to be a number of contradictions in what ‘students want’. We are told that students want more online learning. So it seems sensible to capture lectures and allow students to review the content in their own time. All very sensible. However, I have been told by a lot of people (in a post-truth sense) that if we insist that lecturers are filmed teaching, then they adopt a more conservative approach in the classroom for fear of being ‘You-tubed’. This might lead to increasingly teacher-centred, didactic lectures – after all, discussion and dialogue don’t always play well in recordings of lectures. But, hang on. I am also told that students want more engagement in class – something that might be inhibited by lecture-capture. So the students want it both ways? Problem.
In the media there seems to be an apparent polarisation of the community in which elements are now referring to students as a ‘snowflake generation’, who we cannot challenge or upset, for fear of unleashing their displeasure as costumers. Such an approach to students seems to be a device to increase the distance between teachers and students. And when I have interacted with students recently, they actually seem to want challenge in their education. So again, what is it that students want? We seem to be in danger of assuming there is a single ‘student voice’ that is truly representative. But ‘a lot of people think’ there are actually a lot of different voices within the student body, and among the academics. As the philosopher said, ‘all generalisations are incorrect’. Perhaps we should be looking at ways to exploit diversity rather than seek homogenisation?
Politicians seem to be in the same position of power over universities as the students. After years of criticism about the NSS and the way it informs us (or not) about teaching quality, we are now set to employ selected elements of it in the TEF to evaluate the teaching quality of institutions. By referring to this as a ‘metric’, we have managed to confer some level of credibility to the numbers generated so that interested parties may call the whole process a rigorous and tested procedure. In the face of such post-truth pronouncements, universities seem to have rolled over and accepted their fate – ready to be measured-up (either for their new ball gown or their coffin, depending upon which axe you are interested in grinding).
There may also be a difference between what students want and what students need. To take a health analogy here – over the years many patients have wanted (and got) antibiotics from their doctors because they are suffering from a virus. This is despite all the evidence that antibiotics do not have an effect on viruses. Any expert can tell you this. However, after years of overprescribing, we are now in the situation where antibiotics are becoming less effective against bacteria – bacterial resistance. This pandering to patients has had a harmful effect on the overall population. Without proper debate and analysis of issues, some colleagues view acknowledgement of the student voice as a similar kind of pandering – and such a dismissive view does not help the development of more informed pathways to student-centredness and student engagement.
So where are we and where do we want to go? It appears that we now live in a society where if we don’t provide evidence, then the fake news sources will make it up anyway. I am now wondering if I will soon read a research report that offers ‘post-truth’ as a theoretical framework to underpin conclusions. Perhaps peer review of research will become even more interesting in the coming years?
Professor Ian Kinchin is Head of the Department of Higher Education at the University of Surrey, and is also a member of the SRHE Governing Council. This post was first published on Ian’s personal blog, https://profkinchinblog.wordpress.com and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.