Whose Degree Is It Anyway?: Why, How and Where Universities Are Failing Our Students

Author(s) Robert.J. Naylor
Publisher Professor Robert Naylor
Published 2007
Pages 237
Price £11.99
ISBN 9780955698705
Reviewed by Ms Joanna Williams
University of Kent
Review published 19 January 2009

Whose Degree Is It Anyway? is a powerful and timely contribution to the debate about the nature of higher education in the twenty first century. Naylor, a professor of pharmacology who continues to teach undergraduate and post-graduate students, argues that teaching is being relegated in the demand for universities to fulfil political goals relating to widening participation and promoting national economic development. He contends that without additional financial resources, universities cannot maintain academic standards that are comparable with higher education institutions in other developed countries. He claims: “The message of this book is that it has become dishonest of universities to pretend that they can honourably fulfil the many responsibilities demanded of them. Their resourcing is inadequate to the task in hand” (p.6).

Naylor’s arguments, whilst often controversial, are substantiated by many examples from literature, research, the popular media and his own experiences. The reality he describes, of teaching for undergraduate students in many universities either being reduced or becoming the responsibility of an army of part-time tutors or graduate teaching assistants, will be recognised by many within the sector. He argues that universities ‘buy-in’ published academics with a high reputation who are then used to raise the profile of the institution for both the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and to enhance student recruitment. The experience for most undergraduate students who may have been attracted by the reputation of high profile departments is that they may rarely glimpse the academics upon whom that reputation was built.

Naylor considers the role that government policies have played in bringing about this situation. He primarily blames initiatives designed to widen participation that have massively increased student numbers without a corresponding increase in funding. Put simply, universities are now expected to teach more students with fewer resources. Naylor’s moral stance is that “to persuade so many young people to enter university without establishing the risks lacks integrity,” (p. 6). Such a situation has proved itself not just morally but practically unsustainable. Naylor also considers the pressure upon higher education institutions to compete with each other as businesses, for students and for research income. It has become more profitable for universities to get academics to spend time bidding for funding or producing quantifiable journal articles than it is for them to spend time teaching.

The book explores how the poor state of teaching causes concern for students who have to grapple with the difference between the reality of the university experience and their expectations; lectures who are forced to compromise in the quality of education they are able to offer; employers who are uncertain as to the value of a degree; school teachers who are left unsure as to how to advise their pupils and parents who are often expected to pay for their children to attend university. Naylor ultimately attempts to address some of these issues through his aim to better inform students and their parents as to the realities of life in 21st century university.

Naylor must first and foremost be applauded for his efforts to prompt this vital debate on the state of higher education in the UK today. The issues he raises regarding the duties of universities towards the students they recruit cannot be ignored. The main point of the book, that the expansion of higher education without any increased funding has led to a deterioration of teaching quality for students and a reduction in the ability of lecturers to pursue knowledge for its own sake, is very well made. Naylor is to be admired for his determined questioning of the state we’re in; it is perhaps far easier to write a book that advises people how best to acquiesce and teach twice as many students in half the time as the previous year. Naylor refuses to do anything other than challenge institutional and governmental policies that are designed to deprive students of a high quality experience of teaching and learning in a university.

However, not all of Naylor’s arguments are unproblematic. Naylor highlights how an instrumental view of universities as vital to developing the UK’s economy has been disastrous for educational goals in that it has led to academics shifting away from intellectual pursuits to focus upon business and administration. Naylor cites the philosophical writings of Karl Jaspers (1946) in his seminal book The Idea of a University (1946) where he describes ‘a community of scholars and students engaged in the task of seeking the truth’ as an exemplar of what he considers universities should be about. This is indeed a timely reminder of Jasper’s work and demonstrates the extent of change in higher education in a comparatively short period of time. In blaming the imposition of business models for the virtual absence of ‘the task of seeking the truth’ Naylor ignores trends more readily welcomed or even propagated by some academics for a post-modern denial of truth in favour of relativism.

Further criticisms can be raised at the importance Naylor places upon student (and parent) satisfaction, particularly as reflected in the National Student Survey. The strength of this book lies in the importance Naylor places upon teaching and specifically the pedagogical relationship established between academic and student. It is naive to believe that good teaching automatically leads to satisfaction, especially of the type reported in satisfaction surveys. Real learning experiences can push students out of their comfort zones, put them under pressure and challenge deeply held convictions. In attempting to produce satisfied consumers (‘clients’ is the word preferred by Naylor), lecturers may shy away from pushing students beyond that with which they are most comfortable and therefore avoid challenging learning encounters.

These criticisms are minor in the light of the vital and uncompromising contribution this book makes to a vital debate and its ability to prompt questioning of the status quo. With this in mind, Naylor has established a website (www.whosedegree.co.uk) which he suggests in the book can be used for people to contribute opinions and evidence relevant to the arguments raised in the book but unfortunately there appears to be no room on the site at present for comments. It would be a shame indeed if this book did not lead to further discussion of the state of our universities.