The Great Debate: Engagement vs. Attendance?

Our first blog entry is by Bruce Macfarlane, Head of the School of Education at the University of Bristol. 

‘Student engagement’ has become a buzz phrase in universities influenced by a growing moral panic about whether higher education represents good value for public investment. UK universities are also under pressure to improve retention rates and this has largely led to the focus on student engagement.

I believe that there is a fundamental problem with many university engagement policies. They tend to forget that a) higher education is a voluntary post-compulsory activity b) the students are, in most national contexts including the UK, legally defined as adults, and c) attempts to measure engagement and punish non-compliance are ham-fisted at best and, at worse, represent a threat to student academic freedom.

Academics are keen to assert their right to enjoy academic freedom but we need to take the rights of students as learners much more seriously. This ought to include being allowed to engage in their university studies on their own terms and being able to exercise choice about how, when and where to learn.

Attendance at class is being increasingly monitored and students are also being graded for their ‘class participation’. In my view these types of things – what I call bodily performativity and participative performativity in a recent book – are academic non-achievements. They are about forcing compliance with social and behavioural expectations, not about learning. Attendance rules and class contribution grades do not provide a legitimate means of measuring whether learning is actually taking place. In truth, this is more about assessing large numbers of students in a lazy and time-efficient way. I also oppose progression rules that have minimum attendance requirements.

Universities want students to ‘engage’ but only on their terms as domesticated customers. Others forms of engagement, such as student protest, are not so welcome on campus. We should be interested in how students want to engage and pay more attention to assessing them legitimately rather than using tactics that are essentially a coercive abuse of power.

You are welcome to leave comments on this post below. Comments will be moderated for appropriate language. 

You can find a list of Bruce’s publications below: 

Macfarlane, B. (2017) Freedom to Learn: the threat to student academic freedom and how it can be reclaimed. Routledge/Society for Research into Higher Education, New York/Abingdon.

Macfarlane, B. and Tomlinson, M. (2017) Critiques of student engagement, Higher Education Policy, 30:1, 5-21.

Macfarlane, B. (2016) The performative turn in the assessment of student learning: a rights perspective, Teaching in Higher Education, 21:7, 839-853.

Macfarlane, B. (2015) Student performativity in higher education: converting learning as a private space into a public performance, Higher Education Research and Development, 34:2, 338-350.

Macfarlane, B. (2013) The surveillance of learning: a critical analysis of university attendance policies, Higher Education Quarterly, 67:4, 358-373.

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