An interview with...

An interview with… Bruce Macfarlane

Bruce Macfarlane is Head of the School of Education and author of ‘Freedom to Learn at University’. He delivered a BILT Education Excellence Seminar in May 2019 that can be watched here.

What motivated you to write Freedom to Learn?

It is a case of mea culpa. Earlier in my career I worked as a business and management lecturer and later as an academic developer. In these roles I advocated several learning and teaching practices I criticise in the book. I now believe that many of these things undermine student rights as learners, or their ‘freedom to learn’. This includes enforced participation in class, group assessment, and trying to assess students on the basis of confessional style reflective writing. I am concerned that the student engagement movement has placed too much emphasis on assessing students based on their ‘time and effort’. This mantra has corrupted university assessment making it acceptable to give grades for attendance and ‘class contribution’. This is about not about real learning. It is about rewarding academic non-achievement.

While there are plenty of publications about academic freedom these mainly focus on freedom for academics, not students. There have been few serious attempts to understand student academic freedom. This phrase is largely associated with student protest but I argue that it also needs to be thought in terms of learner rights – to non-indoctrination, reticence, in choosing how to learn, and in being treated like an adult.

Why do you think this performative culture persists?

Performativity is a term synonymous with the demands of being an academic or, indeed, virtually any modern day public sector worker. However, a performative culture also exists for university students too. Three forms of student performativity affect their lives: ‘bodily’ performativity through the way that compulsory attendance requirements are creating a culture of presenteeism at university; ‘participative’ performativity that forces students to take part ‘actively’ in classroom learning and is often assessed on a highly superficial basis through impressionistic grading; and ‘emotional’ performativity requiring compliance with normative political agendas, such as global citizenship and often monitored via reflective writing assignments.

Student performativity has developed, and persists, partly because academics are increasingly burdened by demands to meet their own performative targets such as publishing in high impact journals and winning large research grants. Rewarding students for their ‘time and effort’ is a cheap and cheerful way to reduce the time hungry demands of teaching and assessment. This, sadly, is a big reason why grading attendance and group assessment goes largely unchallenged.

What are the long-term benefits of adopting the changes outlined in the book?

There are important long-term benefits in giving students the freedom to learn. The coercive and authoritarian culture of learning at university promoted by many student engagement initiatives infantilises students and fails to prepare them for life as an adult. In ‘real life’ you are not rewarded for just turning up. Releasing students from compulsory attendance rules would help to re-focus students – and their teachers – on learning rather than rituals of compliance. If students are going to really benefit from a ‘higher’ education they need to be allowed to make up their own minds about the issues that matter to them, not get rewarded for simply being compliant.

What is the one message readers will take away from it?

Well, here are two messages (if I may!). There is a lot of talk in higher education about the ‘effectiveness’ of learning but we need to question practices that are coercive and abuse a student’s right to be treated as an adult taking part in what is meant to be a voluntary phase of education. The means do not always justify the ends.

My second message concerns the meaning of ‘student-centred’ . This phrase has become a hurrah word but its original and true meaning has been lost and distorted. As academics, we need to start questioning practices that are really about creating a presenteeist culture, enforcing forms of participation, and assessing students on the basis of a confessional discourse. In short, we need to put the freedom to learn at the heart of student learning. This is what Carl Rogers called freedom from pressure and is what ‘student-centred’ really means.