Driving Society Forward.
Compulsory Consumption: Uni-Nanny, Truancy and Retention in Higher Education
Glenn Rikowski, London, 22nd October 2006
Universities in the UK are employing state of the art surveillance technology in efforts to increase student retention and cut down on truancy from lectures and seminars. Frank Furedi's (2006b) article in the Times Higher Education Supplement this week indicates how desperate universities have become to make sure that students attend their lessons. He outlines current experiments being carried out at the University of Glamorgan with Uni-Nanny, an electronic student register and surveillance system. Why are universities resorting to such measures as introducing contracts stipulating attendance at lectures (as at Oxford – see Furedi, 2006a) and now this whiz-bang student register? As Furedi explains:
"As a result of the mindless expansion of higher education, a growing proportion of students have only an episodic relationship with their institutions, and truancy is now becoming a university as well as a school problem. It is this that has sparked the call for new control techniques."
Of course, these new control techniques are spectacularly unsuccessful in the compulsory schooling system. Electronic registers have been around for some time, and over £1billion has been spent on various anti-truancy measures by the government in the last decade, only to see truancy rise a little over the period. So why should Uni-Nanny be any different in terms of its impact?
On its web site, Uni-Nanny announces itself as 'an online attendance monitoring system primarily aimed at the educational sector' (Uni-Nanny, undated). Its web site cites various research studies that indicate a correlation between student attendance and student retention. It also provides data on student drop-out (17.1% for mature students and 18.7% for younger ones). The notion that students might object to their classroom attendance being monitored were unfounded, according to the University of Glamorgan experiment. Indeed:
"The Majority of students (75%) thought that the University should monitor attendance as it gave them the feeling that the University cared about their success" (Ibid.).
Thus, Uni-Nanny was perceived as a cuddly helper for student success, according to this evidence. In fact, Uni-Nanny was developed at the University of Glamorgan by Steve Thomas, a principal lecturer in electrical engineering (HERO, und., p.1). This was in response to a 27.4% drop-out rate there (Ibid.). Thomas reported to the Times Higher Education Supplement that:
"There can be hundreds of students attending lectures, and 10 to 20% can be missing without the lecturer having a clue who is or is not there. Obviously some students will never want to be monitored, but most students like it because their good attendance is recognised, and those with problems with their course are given targeted attention as soon as possible" (Ibid.).
Napier University in Scotland is now trialling the system. Napier view Uni-Nanny as part of their 'student support system' (HERO, und, p.2). Edinburgh is also trialling it (Orr, 2006).
Not all are happy with Uni-Nanny. A National Union of Students spokesperson argued that the system 'treated students like criminals' (in Orr, 2006). There is also the point that students, adult students in fact are being treated like wayward school kids. There are also the Orwellian overtones, as brought out by Furedi (2006b).
But Uni-Nanny has a deeper significance. Basically, it is part of a system of forced consumption. Imagine if you bought a car and then, if you did not drive it sufficiently enough for the showroom you bought it from they penalised you in some way. They would be forcing you to consume it.
Something similar is happening in higher education in the UK over this Uni-Nanny. With the ever increasing commodification of higher education where students pay (ever increasing) fees for the educational services that universities provide, they are running up against the capitalist state's higher education finance system and university managements' obsession with keeping students in their institutions in order to maximise funding. Student life is being configured ever more by money. The result is Uni-Nanny and the forced consumption of higher educational services.
It is ironic that students are being force to attend lectures and seminars at a time when higher education managements are attempting to cut back on direct teaching time, and lessening their face-to-face contact with staff. Thus, in some universities in some subjects, students receive only 5 or 6 hours actual teaching. The rest of their teaching programmes are made up with various kinds of e-learning. They pay ever more for ever less in terms of human-centred teaching and learning. However, they are in fact demanding more from universities according to a poll of sixth-formers (see Shepherd, 2006). Something will have to give, and with staff-student ratios on the rise in higher education it looks like university staff will bear much of the fallout of this contradiction, in terms of ever increasing workloads (with the compunction not to lower 'quality') or redundancy (as student numbers fall, and competition in the sector increases).
Furthermore, systems like Uni-Nanny might be set to make handsome profits as higher education institutions bite the bullet and ride roughshod over students' rights and educational freedoms. The fact that the system was developed in a university also encourages academics to get ever more involved in such money making schemes, even when they have the potential to undermine the educational ethos of higher education institutions. It may also undermine staff-student relations as some may react to being spied on and treated like school kids who have to be forced to learn.
Furedi, F. (2006a) Oxford takes out a contract on campus life, Times Higher Education Supplement, 3rd February, p.17.
Furedi, F. (2006b) Big bad Nanny is watching you, Times Higher Education Supplement, 20th October, p.54.
HERO (und.) No lying to nanny, Higher Education & Research Opportunities in the UK, online at: http://www.hero.ac.uk/uk/studying/archives/2006/no_lying_to_nanny.cfm
Orr, J. (2006) Universities 'tag' students to make them attend lectures, The Daily Telegraph, 13th August, online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/08/13/nalevel213.xml
Shepherd, J. (2006) Top-up teens want more for their money, Times Higher Education Supplement, 30th June, p.8.
Uni-Nanny (und.) Improve Retention – Increase Attendance – Invest in Uni-Nanny, online at: http://www.uni-nanny.com/default.htm
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