Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Student experience and the proper aim of a university

My university has launched an admirable initiative to ask its staff what our conception of the University is. One discussion prompted me to think about one specific aspect.

Two initial caveats. UCLan successfully serves a laudable educational and social function. Many of its students are first generation university attenders. They seek out and get a good, and I think life-transforming, education. The contrast between that idea and going to university as a mere upper middle class finishing school is one of the reasons I found being in Durham less inspiring than I had hoped. (I wore a UCLan hoodie out and about when my social hackles rose.)

Interestingly, also, UCLan students enjoy life in the city of Preston which might not seem as obviously lovely as other northern cities such as York. The relation between the university, the city and what the students manage to make of things themselves makes the experience a good one. They report good things about living here and hence enjoy their time at the university.

UCLan prides itself on that last idea. And why not, given the sacrifice that many of our students and their families make to come? Why would we not worry about the nature of their overall experience? We do and this is reflected in careful attention to national student survey results, SSLCs, and committees called Student Experience Committees (on one of which I serve). Nothing to follow, goes against that.

But although I think that the positive nature of our students’ experiences of the university is something to be actively sustained, there is something a little odd first about the way that becomes a kind of singular but general abstract noun: ‘the student experience’. Now one might worry that such a phrase undermines or ignores the variety of student experiences. But I wonder more broadly whether we should make the high quality of student experience – important though it is – our aim.

Here’s the thought. Whilst the outcome of a good ‘student experience’ is to be desired, perhaps we should not aim at it. By aiming at it, we’ll miss. But if we aim at a different target we might get it as well.

So first: there’s a distinction between a description and an aim. Universities might or might not support an outcome. It may or may not be – descriptively – true that their students have a good experience of university life. A distinct question is whether that is an aim. There is then a subtle further prudential issue: even if such an outcome is desirable, should it be the target of university policy? My hunch is that it shouldn’t be the primary policy.

Two problems strike me about taking student experience as the aim. First, it fails to distinguish between a proper aim for a university and for the pubs and clubs that also cater to student life. Since the university’s conception of ‘experience’ is implicitly distinct why not say so. The word ‘experience’ misleads. Second, although that word might be understood to mean ‘overall’ or ‘over time’ or even ‘over a lifetime’, it suggests something both more momentary and concerning which the student him or herself is an authority. Again, although that seems appropriate when thinking about the service a pub or club offers, it doesn’t seem right for a university.

The reason for this is that getting an education should be a profoundly transforming experience, moulding and shaping adult character, affecting one’s capacity for thought, reflection and sensitivity to the demands of whole new tracts of the space of reasons. Given that it changes the subjects who undergo it, there is no reason to think them authoritative about its nature in the short term nor that that it should always seem, at the time, a positive experience. For example, changing one’s mind about something, coming to see that one was wrong, that one weighed the factors hastily or was blind to some important reasons can be an unpleasant experience but no less right for that. But even reading Kant, or Wittgenstein, McDowell or Travis can be less than enjoyable at first, can be a bad experience in one sense of that word.

If we aim to educate our students, they will overall have a positive experience. Surely better to aim at education, in the deepest sense of that word, and let the experience follow than to aim at the experience and hope that the education follows.