Two Birds, One Stone

With all the hemming and hawing and handwringing about whether and how to reintroduce student fees, something has been lost on almost everyone but working lecturers: the woeful rates of student attendance. Absenteeism among students is absolutely endemic and, in my experience, the problem is getting worse. I suspect that, if the taxpayers knew what was going on, the pressure to re-introduce fees would grow.

Many see a link between poor attendance and the abolition of fees. They believe that students aren’t attending because it doesn’t cost them much or, in any case, nothing like the real costs of their places in university. Yet, I’m not certain that re-instituting fees alone would solve the problem for the simple reason that, once the money is paid, students on whom the qualitative incentives to attend (you know: learning) have no purchase have no further incentive to attend (or, alternatively, no disincentive not to attend). Let’s face it: a great many students are mercenary about their studies. The view is very widespread among students that grades are the only things that matter and that the goal of a “university” “education” is to get the highest grades with minimal effort. If you can get a good or even satisfactory grade without attending a single class, then you’ve played the game as well as can be played. I’m not the only one saying this even if it is a view that one rarely hears in Ireland.

Many lecturers and departments have tried to devise all manner of incentives and disincentives to discourage this behaviour. They give a percentage of the final grade for attendance, for example. But that’s perverse: why should a student get actual credit for doing what should go without saying?

Is there a way to solve this problem without re-introducing fees (or, worse, continually increasing fees by calling them something else while also claiming that university is “free”)? I believe there is and I also believe it would have the effect of improving educational outcomes for many if not most students. It may also raise more revenue than the current system.

The idea is this: fees are re-instated at a level around the average cost of delivering the service to students in all disciplines–in other words at the level of the actual cost of delivering a university education–but all students are given a grant to cover 100% of those fees. So university is effectively free. However, for every timetabled class that is missed without a documented excuse, the student’s grant will be reduced on a pro rata basis. There’ll be no direct impact on the student’s grade in the class, only on their pocket. Miss more than a few classes without documentation and you’ll be paying more than you pay currently. Miss a substantial number and it’ll cost you quite a lot. Miss them all and, before you flunk out, you’ll pay the full cost of providing you with the education you’re not taking advantage of.

What objections could anyone have to this? Students could not claim that fees had been reintroduced. Indeed, the various “student services charges” that they object to would also be abolished. Now, it might turn out not to raise as much money as what it replaces, but even if that were so, it would nevertheless result in better-educated graduates.

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4 Responses to Two Birds, One Stone

  1. otto says:

    “They give a percentage of the final grade for attendance, for example. But that’s perverse: why should a student get actual credit for doing what should go without saying?”

    If a small % for attendance achieves the desired result, the ‘perverse’ complaint would appear to be less than compelling.

    • Ernie Ball says:

      Even if it were justified on pragmatic grounds, it would remain intellectually perverse in my view, a bit like giving students credit for breathing or spelling their names properly. It also fosters the idea that university is all just a game involving jumping through various hoops rather than an educational experience. This is a serious point: economic thinking has so penetrated the students’ mindset (but not only that of the students) that it comes naturally to them to think of grades as a kind of “mental money,” valuable in themselves, regardless of what is learned. My proposal acknowledges their economic motivations but insists that they are only applicable where actual money is concerned and are inappropriate ways of thinking about one’s education (e.g., I’m getting paid 10% worth of “A” just for showing up here).

      What’s more, I’ve tried giving 10% and even 20% for attendance and it still doesn’t work. The same students whose attendance would be poor without the incentive still don’t attend. They write off the 10% or 20%.

  2. otto says:

    Just give e.g. +2% to -2% for attendance, so the average result is still about zero, but everyone has some incentive at the margin to attend.

    And keep tweaking until it works, plus emailing students who don’t attend. Dont give up after the first iteration…

  3. Sid Justice says:

    With all this hemming and hawing about low attendance, you haven’t given any reasons why students don’t attend nor offered any reasons why they should in the first place. In fact, why not begin with a definition of attendance. Let’s just talk about undergraduates, do you mean attendance to mean simply, their attendance in the lecture rooms at the time allocated to them on their timetables (and to tutorials, lab sessions etc.)? What about attendance in the library? Or attendance in the campus in general?

    I presume you know better than me that this didactic model of education is as ancient as it is archaic. What value do students get from actually attending sessions given by uncharismatic lecturers? Asking a few token questions? In this day and age, at the very least, the lecture slides should be made available (there never should be a copyright issue). I also support the idea of recording (either just audio or both audio and vision). Perhaps an insecure lecturer might say “if they have recordings and notes why would they bother attending?” or even “why even bother paying me if they have it all copied”.

    Of course I’d say if there is actually any genuine purpose to the lecturer’s employment his research, management, course organisation skills should guarantee his employment.

    “People have now-a-days got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shewn. You may teach chemistry by lectures:– You might teach the making of shoes by lectures!” Samuel Johnson

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