Why we need to collaborate with ‘generation snowflake’ to improve universities


generation snowflake

University students have been called many things over the years, and the most recent term “snowflake”, is now being used to characterise a whole generation of “overly sensitive students”, more often labelled millennials.

The word “snowflake” was both a Financial Times and Collin’s Dictionary “word of the year” for 2016, with the definition given as:

Someone deemed too emotionally vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own, particularly in universities and other forums once known for robust debate.

The phrase has been thrown around recently in relation to the changing face of higher education and the current reforms that will soon be impacting the sector. These reforms include the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), a flagship initiative from the Higher Education and Research Bill which aims to give students more choice.

The TEF will see increased scrutiny of English universities, which will be ranked as gold, silver or bronze depending on the quality of their teaching.

The higher education sector faces massive change. Shutterstock

The higher education sector faces massive change. Shutterstock

Professional care?

These reforms are contentious, with many in the sector agreeing with the Sunday Telegraph’s analysis that:

Universities will be forced to pander to the demands of “snowflake” students if controversial changes to the ranking system are approved

In the same article, Baroness Wolf, a professor at King’s College London, was quoted, saying:

The student satisfaction measure is fantastically dangerous. The way to make students happy is not asking them to do any work and giving them a high grade.

This perspective is leading to growing fears that university students cannot be trusted with power to shape how universities operate, and how education performance is measured.

But I want to challenge this view, because an important motivation for the TEF is to address longstanding doubts about the level of professional care for teaching and learning in universities. The reforms are designed to prod the academic profession into less self serving behaviours, and instead to care more about the wider role of universities.

As universities minister Jo Johnson put it in his 2015 green paper that “for too long, teaching has been regarded as a poor cousin to academic research”.

Working in partnership

Having spent nearly two decades working and studying in universities it is clear to me that the academic profession – and the institutional environment of higher education more widely – has not cared enough about students and how their learning will shape the world.

The right response for a profession that cares about learning is to work more closely with students in shaping the future. This means working in partnership with them. And this is why I am open to the challenges the TEF presents.

There are legitimate questions about how teaching performance can be fairly and reliably assessed, and whether surveying students should be the primary method. But concerns here are overblown. Because if students in our universities are learning to think critically about all kinds of subjects, then they can cope with learning about the limitations of psychometric “customer satisfaction” methods.

Shared future

We need to move beyond what Ronald Barnett, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, has called the “conspiracy for safety” in university teaching. This is the notion that the best way to achieve high satisfaction scores is to give students an easy ride, inflate their grades, and turn education into light entertainment.

We can overcome this by building structures of “co-design” and “co-creativity” with students – working with them as collaborators in learning and knowledge building.

This means students redefining their role as “architects” of learning rather than “customers”. The latter being a role they can leave behind as soon as they have secured their place.

This is what I have started to do as part of a co-design process with undergraduates. And although it takes a lot of time, care and energy, it is also professionally rewarding.

For academics worried about the “dumbing down” of teaching through the involvement of students in evaluating performance, my experience working with co-design has increasingly been the reverse.

Yes, there is resistance and the occasional “meltdown” that might be expected from young people in the process of becoming independent adults – the kind of thing we have all been guilty of in our lives. But undergraduates also demonstrate a hunger to learn, to share, and a motivation to succeed.

So let’s fulfil our professional duty to care about students and how they learn. And let’s work with them as collaborators to shape the future of higher education.

Author Bio:Mark Gatenby is an Associate Professor in Organizations at the University of Southampton