The mass university is good for equity, but must it also be bad for learning?

Are the best parts of unis – students collaborating and sharing ideas – going to be lost in a mass university system? Kennedy Library/Flickr, CC BY-SA

When universities began expanding, they became more inclusive. While this is a good thing, scholars often look at their large class sizes and lament that many of the students won’t set foot in the lecture theatres or libraries thanks to technology, and grow increasingly frustrated at the shallow assignment responses.

They ask: whatever happened to learning? Is there still a place for old-style, face-to-face education, good clear thinking and real, tangible books?

Students: responsible for their own learning?

Professor of philosophy David Armstrong fondly observed what he thought was the best part of learning from his academic career that spanned the 1950s to the 1990s:

I like for the Faculty of Arts the idea that you sit around for a long time discussing things in coffee shops and pubs and quadrangles and anywhere else that you can get some seating and, finally, towards the end of the year you’ve got to get some work done […] That’s a good way, I think, to conduct an Arts education; students educate each other in the course of this.

This description was familiar to me, for it resembled Sydney University’s key approach when I studied there in the 1990s. Perhaps it still does. The idea was that “good” students in the vicinity of a good library would largely educate themselves.

It wasn’t bad, in a way. Students were immersed in a strange, alien and exciting intellectual environment. They were in classrooms with others like themselves. They were exposed (in an often-distant way) to heroes of their disciplines. With plenty of time for sitting around in quadrangles and coffee shops, they had well-developed ideas that ended up, sometimes, in their essays and exams.

Cluttering scholarly thinking

As it was for Armstrong, this is the approach to learning that attracts the most nostalgia, perhaps especially among academics. For scholars, I suspect such nostalgia reflects a yearning to make ideas the centre of our work, a wish to de-clutter our thinking from the largely meaningless bureaucratic tasks that often dominate the day. These cluttered lives make for frustratingly shallow thinking – which we observe in our students all the time. We are forced at times also to see it in ourselves.

This cluttering of academic life has clearly spread to students. Corridor discussions among scholars express frustration with the thinking of students more concerned with the time spent in paid work than in quadrangles discussing ideas.

Across the mass university there seems to be a steep decline in opportunities for face-to-face learning, for peer-to-peer discussion or to wander through libraries stumbling across interesting and stimulating ideas.

De-personalised learning

What does the future hold? Will students in the ever-growing university ever even see one another? Will they just sit at home on their laptops reading the snippets of eBooks allocated by lecturers they mostly know only by their email address?

Who will they talk about ideas to? Their parents? They certainly show fewer signs of being able to leave home.

And yet their ever-growing focus on paid work is necessary, even if it is primarily just to keep up with the minimum technologies young people need to be able to take their place in society, for who can have friends these days, let alone study or work, without a mobile phone and good WiFi?

Ebooks and online technologies are essential to a mass university system. Daniel Sancho/Flickr, CC BY

These pressures on the experience of student learning in the mass university clearly have multiple sources. But our dystopian fears may be overstated. Many aspects of online education are excellent.

Imagine if we still had students parading through current serials sections of libraries to photocopy this week’s readings? Or worse, as was the case before photocopiers, all reading the same copy?

Does eLearning empower students and save scholarly labour?

Online teaching and learning are not necessarily isolating activities. Facebook alone shows us that. Of course good teaching matters online as it does everywhere else: any course is alienating and confusing with the wrong teacher, even on campus. Sadly, we have far too few teachers dedicated to their students’ learning in classrooms both online and on campus, in part because the cluttered life of the scholar makes good teaching difficult.

Will we end up just trying to keep students at wifi-length, just to try to make a little more time for scholarship?

What about students’ relationships to one another, the idea that bringing them together on a campus offers them a place in which to make their worlds bigger? Will they still have opportunity to educate one another? Will the days of quadrangles and coffee shops and sharing ideas really pass away?

Designers of flexible learning spaces and campus cafes have been thinking about this for some time, as have the architects of new libraries. As is often the case in the mass university, managers seem to believe that institutional planning alone can make student learning happen, even informally. They seem to forget that it was actually the students, not the cafes and quadrangles, that were doing the work.

It’s not campus design that does the work, students interacting with each other brings about new ideas and thoughts. Saint Louis University/Flickr, CC BY

And they almost entirely overlook the reality that the learning that Armstrong idealised relied on students possessing a whole lot of skills that were likely derived from their class and, certainly in Sydney, also often their ethnic background.

This is not news. Educationalists worldwide since the 1970s have observed that the characteristics of educational success are closely linked to class status.

To use my own discipline, it is evident that students who grew up with books on the shelf in English, which they were likely to discuss over dinner, have skills that push them further ahead as historians than students who did not.

Their parents’ own educational background also assists them in navigating educational institutions. Those of us who teach non-traditional students often end up frustrated that they have just not understood the task; this is far less likely to be a problem where educational norms permeated a childhood.

The mass university needs now to support students more actively. It means doing more than just putting smart students within reach of a good library and letting them educate one another.

The mass university offers new opportunities for more inclusive learning

Despite our dystopian suspicions, the mass university, as it continues to grow, offers great hope. Our students, coming as they do from wider backgrounds, bring new knowledge and skills into our classrooms. These are skills we’ve never before been able to integrate into curricula and subjects.

If we can teach them well – in an inclusive manner that draws out and values these skills as innovations in our fields – we will make knowledge in our universities bigger and better.

Nostalgia for a form of education designed for white middle-class students will not achieve this. But attention to the privileged task of teaching in the mass university just might.


The Conversation is running a series on “What are universities for?” looking at the place of universities in Australia, why they exist, who they serve, and how this is changing over time. Read other articles in the series here.

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