One of the less welcome parts of this year has been several weeks of debate about student behaviour. Numerous emails and meetings with higher-ups and constantly having to argue the same point over and over again.
What was the topic of dispute? We had suggested that well-educated twenty-somethings should dispose of rubbish safely in bins! Not just general waste but that chemical and clinical waste should be safely and promptly disposed of. Given that my girlfriend had a pair of nine-year old nephews who manage to put rubbish in the bin without even being asked to I had not regarded this as an unreasonable request for people who theoretically are being trained as the next generation of scientists.
One of the arguments made to me was “students really enjoy this course”. “I like doing it” is not actually an adult argument for anything, but here we get to the crux of the matter.
Science is a discipline. That means some things have to be done a certain way. There are right ways to do things and there are wrong ways. You only learn the right ways and get into the habit of using them if the wrong ways are corrected. Being told “don’t do that” or “tidy that up first” is not fun, however. So there are whole courses where basic safety and good practice are not enforced. People pay thousands to come to a university and supposedly learn a trade yet leave without the basic skills and disciplines they need. But that is fine, so long as “student satisfaction” levels remain high. Those might fall if someone who is being a jerk and endangering others is told not to be a jerk!
The problem revolves around money. In the past few decades the idea has arisen that each university should make a profit. The more students we can run through the machine and the more fees the better. However, the desired product of a higher education should not be a satisfied graduate. Students, by definition, do not know everything. They have no idea if they are getting an adequate education or not. Looking at each university as an isolated money-generating system is a fallacy Universities are supposed to produce graduates who are prepared for their future working roles. The better the quality of graduate the better for industry, the economy and the society as a whole. Institutions such as road-repair or the police force are not expected to make a profit. They exist because we know that their function facilitates the rest of society running more effectively. Universities should be regarded in the same light.
At the moment very little has been changed by our complaints about safety and professional behaviour. In fact the main result is that our warning has gone on record against the day when inevitably these laissez-faire practices result in someone being seriously hurt. Practical classes are little more than a crèche in white coats, but everybody is having fun and fills in the feedback reports as desired. I resign myself to the fact that courses are now entertainment rather than education.