I Blame You, Dear Professors

Students are not responsible for the weakness of the higher educational system. The ones that should be blamed are the professors, who created and have been maintaining dysfunctional mechanisms – harmful, ineffective and inadequate for the challenges of the contemporary world.

Professor Hartman provoked a heated debate about the condition of Polish education in his article in Gazeta Świąteczna [“Umarła klasa” (A class is dead), 11-12 May], in which he proposed a controversial thesis about the end of the institution of school as we know it. Actually, he resumed it because this situation has lasted for ages – pathologies of the educational system are so deep that it is difficult not to notice them in a public debate (e.g. the series of articles in “Polityka” weekly). Among all the opinions aroused by the article, my attention was drawn to an anonymous letter of a cosmetology student, published in the next issue of Gazeta Świąteczna (18-19 May). The student wrote that she was finishing her studies “with relief and disappointment”. In her letter, she stigmatises poor didactic preparation of lecturers, the lack of motivation and unreliability, which made her feel a bit cheated. She expected something else from studying at a renowned college. Her long list of examples did not surprise me – it is a sad reality that I know too well. I am not surprised that she is disappointed with the level of teaching. After graduation she will have to face the reality of labour market, although (looking at the way she stated her arguments in the letter) she will get by. But I think that the conclusion “professors do not like students” is wrong. It is not professors’ feelings that are the source of our problem, but the system which they created and have been functioning in.

“Profestitution” in the mass age

Many professors, including Hartman (in “Polityka” weekly), think that the reason for the weakness of education is the fact that colleges and universities are flooded by worse and worse prepared students after secondary schools – ignoramuses – who do not read books or newspapers and intellectually lazy “weenies”. “Profestitutes” take care of their education – that is teachers who turn a blind eye to academic ethos in the face of excessive duties, pressure from the environment or simply laziness [“they foul intelligence (…), give away good marks (I will leave the comparison unsaid) and take PLN 100 and then some for an hour”]. Professor Hartman admitted that he used to be such a “profestitute” and I must also admit that I do it from time to time. From the conversations with my colleagues from different schools it follows that a big part of our society has to do it. I beat my breast and whip my back, but sometimes I feel it is not worth losing my energy on breaking the walls of the system. Of course, there are people who tend to be ”profestitutes” more often than others, but the way the higher educational system is organised is really “tempting”.

It is also worth highlighting that popularisation of higher education (which I guess is unavoidable) cannot extenuate the poor quality of teaching. It is no big deal to educate outstandingly gifted students, the trick is to adapt the way and contents to the abilities and needs of average students. The trick it to motivate and teach something those who are not well prepared for studying. The present situation challenges Polish higher schools – how to educate less gifted students effectively, and at the same time not to neglect the outstanding ones which constitute more or less the same number each year.

I blame you, professors, who work in the ministry, have seats in rector and dean authorities, in faculty boards, are the heads of faculties and institutes; I blame you for maintaining the higher education system in which the quality of teaching is actually of minor importance. I blame you from the perspective of a young lecturer who has power solely over students during classes and exams, when I can freely decide about the grades, contents and methods of teaching. I can talk wisely or not really wisely; I can be just or not; I can teach or just show off with my erudition. Some of you may say – this is a traditional “gold academic freedom,” which is the basis of academic education. That is true, but in Polish conditions it too often changes into harmful lawlessness. Let me list seven sins which, in my opinion, decrease the quality of higher education. You know them well, don’t you?

1. Nobody cares about didactic preparation of academic teachers – there are no obligatory training courses, and nobody controls the teaching methods. At colleges or universities there are a lot of lectures which are the less effective way of transferring knowledge and, additionally, they are the most difficult way for lecturers – great oratorical skills are needed to maintain students’ attention for 1.5 h. There are so many possible methods of teaching – debates, games, case studies etc. – which are much more effective and pleasant for students and lecturers. The point is that one has to know how to use them and lecturers are not taught how to do it.

2. The lack of real evaluation of the quality of teaching, including the control over the quality of exams. Academic teachers teach how and what they want to. Exams are not controlled at all. The only form of monitoring classes, which is superficial, is online surveys, usually filled in by not many students attending a given class.  No conclusions can be drawn on the basis of such a small sample, so they are not drawn. As a result, the teacher gives poor classes for many years. If there are no problems with passing the exam, no more than a few students will rebel and usually it is not enough to enforce any changes.

3. Promotions dependent solely on academic not teaching achievements. A friend of mine who did his best at the beginning, was given a piece of advice by a professor: “Teaching is not important, concentrate on academic achievements because they are evaluated”. A cynical attitude of an old hand? Maybe, but true about the system we have. Teaching achievements are neither examined nor rewarded – only publications, citations and  running scientific projects count.

4. Financial incentives to keep as many students as possible. If money follows the student, then one needs to have as many students as possible. This is how the system of financing colleges or universities works. Selection, which is the key element of education on such a level, is very hindered. Everyone may think – failing a student I’m digging my own grave. Very often no pressure from academic authorities is needed – lecturers understand the reality in which they function.

5. The way quota of teaching hours is stipulated. Every lecturer has to give a certain number of classes during a year. The hours of exams are not counted as the quota of teaching hours. It is a clear encouragement to choose the less time-consuming forms of exams (e.g. tests) and to grade students very leniently. “If I get everything sorted in June, I will have September off” – this sentence is true not only for students but also their lecturers.

6. Outdated teaching tools. Despite the fast development of such teaching tools like computer games, interactive whiteboards or the possibility to record and publish lectures online, they are not widely used in teaching. Methods of teaching do not matter in the system, so lecturers are not encouraged to use them. As a result, only a group of passionate lecturers use them. The only visible technological change is popularisation of multimedia projects. Access to them is important, but they often only change the reality in such a way that poor lecturers do not read from a piece of paper but from a screen.

7. Poor cooperation with employers. A lot is said about the necessity to adapt teaching programmes flexibly to changing the needs of the labour market. For now, the winning opinions are those of people who claim that a college or university should not really pay attention to employers because “this is not a vocational school but a university”. On many faculties it is impossible to teach well in isolation from market needs and without benefiting from the knowledge and technologies of enterprises. Bigger engagement of business in academic activities, as consultants of teaching programmes or as co-lecturers of some courses, seems to be a necessity. Of course only if we want to teach well.

A minimal plan

That is a good question, dear professors – do you want to teach well? I know that many of you not only want to do it, but also do it. My master – convinced of the superiority of oral exams over tests – is not discouraged by the number of students and examines every day, the whole month, from morning till…the last student comes. But the mass system of education cannot be built on such persons. System solutions have to take into account the average level of engagement in lecturer’s work, which is not really high.

The improvement in educational system requires a fundamental change of the attitude towards teaching at Polish colleges and universities. The level will not improve without professional monitoring and periodic assessment of teaching students, without the popularisation of teaching training courses for teachers, without incentives to introduce teaching innovations and the popularisation of good practice. This is a minimal plan, which would make lecturers aware that the fifth wheel has come back to its place, that is, to the front axle of the cart and that they have to buckle down to teaching and… like students.

Translation: Anita Stradomska