Sunday, September 11, 2016

Triangular imbalance

The players in higher education include three groups: students, administration and teachers. The power held by each group is based on tradition but is also dynamic. In Israel and, I suspect, other countries as well, a major shift has occurred in these power politics. Specifically, Israeli college students, through the student unions, have begun to actively apply their financial and numerical power to change academics.

In traditional universities worldwide, the professors once ruled the roost. Students had little if no say in their own education. It is said that the disturbances of 1968 in France were said to have ignited by the simple gaul, pun intended, of a Sorbonne student, who dared to pose a question to a professor. I experienced this attitude more recently, in 2002, when I innocently challenged the grade given by the learned professors at Leicester University on my MBA thesis.  They did not apparently recognize my right to have a grade justified.  Of course, the administration has almost always supported the staff in any dispute, viewing the teachers as the foundation stone of the institute's reputation.

However, the nature of academics as well as society has radically changed. More and more institutitions of higher education have opened in all countries, whatever their denomination, to meet the growing demand for degrees if not actual education. At the same time, public funding of higher education has failed to keep up or even declined. Thus, most colleges find themselves seeking funds.  The voiceless students have now become the client, the actual term applied by the administration. In other words, without proper student enrollment, the learned professors will have no position. Thus, in Israel today, students have an ever increasing vote in curriculum matters.

An example of this trend is the current controversy regarding the teaching of English in Israeli universities.  Hebrew being a limited in its international use, English is universally understood as the key for success.  However, the question of who is going to pay for the English courses has always been a sticky issue. It has been standard practice to require students to pay extra for lower level English courses since they are supposedly remedial and only for those freshmen whose English is not up to par. The sheer number of students taking such remedial courses suggests a serious gap between the required level and actual level.  Enter politics, in the person of a populist Minister of Education. One way to gain favor is to make life easier and less expensive for young voters. Six months ago, he arranged a way that the students could take a free and unaudited English course on line but would have to take the English test for that course level at the university where they study.  This option clearly helps saves the students money and time.  However, based on the results of the tests at Israeli institutes of higher learning, after the first such semester, it doesn't seem very effective in teaching English, even if the goal is strictly limited to reading comprehension.  Nationwide, around 50% of the Israeli students that took the online course failed their college English tests. Tension between students and staff has increased, needless to say.

Clearly, a balanced relationship is needed. Students have rights, including the right to 
education that opens horizons and serves them in their lives. They also have the right to be taught by lecturers that know to teach and to be graded fairly.  On the other hand, lecturers are not mere servants that satisfy basic students' immediate desires, those being high grades with minimum work. They have attained some perspective on longer term needs.  As a current lecturer and a former student, I believe in balance and mutual respect in student-teacher relations. My experience is that most students and lecturers are reasonable people and share a vision. To mangle Lincoln's phrase from the Gettysburg Address, education so divided cannot long survive.

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