Brave New World

The University College of North Burston was up and running. The space above the bus station had been completely transformed. The shabby glass-and-plasterboard partitions were gone, replaced with safety-glass dividers which could be wheeled around like hospital curtains. The stained and chipped paintwork had been replaced by smooth, shining surfaces, with broad strips of bright colour delineating different parts of the space. Furnishings were similarly colour-coded. Power and Ethernet sockets could be pulled down from moveable overhead gantries, so that tables could be used anywhere. Huge photographs of inspiring landscapes drew the eye. Over by the ‘food and beverage’ machines, a yellow beanbag ran the length of the wall. Sound-proofing protected the delicate ears of staff and students from the noise of the city centre.

Recruitment had been exactly on target. Thirty students for Marketing, thirty for Accounting and Finance.  Two nights a week for each group, 5pm-9pm, with tutorials at 8am, 12pm, 1pm and 4pm to fit in with people’s commutes to work or lunch hours. Sheila and Bob ran the admin for all of the tutorials themselves, using an advanced Customer Relations Management package which they’d tweaked slightly so that the students got input as customers and the tutors were like the sales reps. Way better than a sign-up sheet on the door. Especially when you didn’t have any doors.

Sheila sat at her desk in the blue area. It was 7am and the room was quiet. Bob had popped over to Cheeky’s to get them some coffee. She looked around the room. It was quite nice when it was empty, if a bit more like a prospectus than she would have thought possible. The noise and bustle of students brought it to life. It would make a perfect common room area. But for teaching?

She wasn’t sure how long the fixtures and fittings were going to stand up to heavy use. The overhead gantries had a slight tendency to snag – did that have the potential for a fire hazard? The wheeled dividers were pointless in all respects, since you could still see and hear, and thus be distracted by, what was happening in a neighbouring group. The noise of students dragging furniture around into different configurations  seemed to echo around the room. And the yellow beanbag had already gathered some rather disturbing stains, not to mention being slightly further from the bin than some people were willing to go with their paper cups nd chocolate wrappers.

This really wasn’t quite what she’d had in mind.  She was wondering if she’d been foolish in buying into the project. She’d been really taken with the idea of offering lower-priced flexible provision to students who would otherwise be unable to get a degree. She’d had no trouble setting up the spin-off company so that it didn’t exploit staff or students. The VC had given them a generous budget for start-up. It should have been perfect.

But. But. When the room filled with students at 4pm, she really wasn’t sure that it was what she’d hoped for. The room was too busy. The part-time staff they’d taken on didn’t really understand group work, and tended to revert to lecture style, despite the compulsory training she’d bought in from the Centre for Academic Practice. Although the sounds of the bus station were well screened, the acoustics of the room somehow magnified all of the furniture-scraping sounds of fidgeting students. She and Bob sat frozen at their desks whenever the tutors were speaking, in order not to distract students. Plus, one of them needed to stay until the last session had finished every night, to lock up.

But the main thing which was bothering her was the quality of the student experience. Surely getting a degree at evening class, on the cheap, was exactly what the last fifty years of higher education expansion had been trying to avoid? Wasn’t this more like a turn-of-the-twentieth century Workers Educational Association outpost offering University of London degrees than a modern university environment? Where was the buzz? What about the debating society? The sports clubs?  The bar? The personal development?

She felt obscurely guilty. What if this was just the thin end of the wedge for higher education?

What effect will the removal of Student Number Control have on this dismal project? To be continued…

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