19 July 2006

On negotiating deferrals

I have just done my last teaching observation of the year, probably. It concerned a post-graduate course at another university, intended to develop the business skills of free-lance artists.

This post is not about the session itself, but some administrative business that I happened to witness. The course tutor came in, partly to greet the students for their last session of the year (good), and partly to nag them about getting their assignments in on time (bad, in my book).

In particular, one "student", in his late forties (?) had not submitted a particular piece of work. He had suffered sunstroke, he had been hospitalised for a few days, and he had been unable to work for two weeks. All that meant that, as a self-employed person, he had been unable to work and had probably lost 5% of his annual income... (OK, artists' incomes do not follow the same pattern as those of trades people, but they probably average out similarly.)

This guy had been chatting previously about how useful he had found the course; about all the new ideas he had gained about strategic planning, about how to bid for public commissions, about how to manage his taxes, and the like. He wanted to progress to the next stage of the programme, simply because this part had been so useful, he wanted to find out more. In reality, the acquisition of academic accreditation was way down on this list of priorities.

So the programme leader came in and started asking him whether he could produce medical evidence of his incapacity to submit for the deadline....

This kind of academic arrogance really bugs me! Even the medical profession has got beyond this! Who cares how long it takes him to get his work in? He'll only try to meet the deadline in order to stay on to the next stage of the programme anyway; letters after his name do not mean anything in his real world. It is the utility of the learning which keeps him going.

Well, my academic colleagues riposte--why should he have more time to complete this assignment than his fellow-students, unless he has a good excuse? He will have an unfair advantage. Grow up! Competition, if it exists in this group, is trivial. They want the learning, not the "qualification".

Luther (he'll see through that crude encoding, if he reads this) has finally submitted his work for module 5 of the PGCE. Four years late. So? [So he is lucky that I am not so retired that I will not mark it!] He needs to learn about deadlines, argues Phil Race (www.phil-race.com and I am not going to be more specific because the site is full of gems, so see you in a couple of hours...) Luther is a journalist by profession; he is the British "stringer" for several German newspapers. He teaches German "on the side". As a native speaker, he is in demand as a teacher. From an employment point of view, his "native speaker" status is vastly more important than a teaching qualification, but it is entirely to his credit that he sought one. Who are we to insist that he should complete it in a time-scale of our imposition?

A few years ago, when I sat on the university's "Research Degrees Committee", an agenda item concerned the compulsory termination of "out-of-time" students. One student had taken eight years, so far, on his Ph.D. The motion was to "terminate" him, despite the fact that he had dutifully paid his fees every year. This was clearly contrary to the Levinsky rules etc. Further questioning, however, revealed that this "student" was well into his seventies. He was simply fascinated by his subject. He had no real need to sign up for a Ph.D, but he thought it would at least ensure he could have someone (a.k.a. "supervisor") with whom to share his enthusiasm for whatever his topic was. He might complete; he might not. From the university's point of view, does it matter?

Would we bother, of course, were we not concerned to demonstrate the "completion" or "achievement" rates the government wants? Probably not.

What happened to valuing "learning", "study", "scholarship" etc. as opposed to "qualifications", "retention" and "achievement"?

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