Lecturers ‘struggle to speak English’ at elite universities charging students £9,000 a year

This is hardly new.

Well, the £9,000 a year might be but the struggling to speak English isn’t. We had one full professor at the LSE where English was his fourth (and very badly learnt) language. Japanese, German, Russian I think, then English. Excellent economist doing very interesting research but as a lecturer not all that understandable.

41 comments on “Lecturers ‘struggle to speak English’ at elite universities charging students £9,000 a year

  1. We had a Japanese lecturer who was a great guy, brilliant computer scientist but could only speak the first half of each word. Then again the reason he was at the University was to do his research, not to teach. I think you’ll find that teaching is very much secondary and a “necessary evil” to many lecturers.

  2. Believe me, charging £9,000 tuition fees does not mean you’re an elite university.

    For example: I bet Ivan Horrocks charges £9k for his courses; English is regarded as his first language, but he doesn’t speak it in any way that I can understand.

  3. Mutual incomprehension between staff and students has always been an integral part of the university experience.

  4. I used to outrage my colleagues by pointing out that the greatest service we could perform for many of our research students would be to send them to elocution lessons.

  5. Excellent economist doing very interesting research but as a lecturer not all that understandable.

    I think this is one of those Two Cultures things. At modern British universities, the scientists can’t speak English, so their students struggle to understand, while the arts lecturers do speak English, but they are so taken up with French theory that their students do not have a clue what they are talking about.

  6. dearieme, I’ve had the same thought about many of my colleagues too. The company as a whole would work better if staff (including the Brits) were given elocution lessons.

  7. “I take my car to the local garage, for servicing, but it doesn’t always change the oil & once a wheel fell off. But the mechanic is very successful in racing the car he’s built & maintains, Which is his main interest.”

  8. This started growing as a problem a few years ago when there started being much more of an insistence on lecturers having doctorates; there weren’t enough English ones to go round.

  9. Back in my day at Oxford, a doctorate was said to show that you hadn’t been quite good enough to get a fellowship at 21.

  10. Richard – “This started growing as a problem a few years ago when there started being much more of an insistence on lecturers having doctorates; there weren’t enough English ones to go round.”

    The endless flow of worthless people with worthless doctorates has not slowed in the UK. It is simply that salaries are too low for any sane British person to consider being a lecturer.

    It is perfectly possible for a junior lecturer at Oxbridge to be paid less than his Departmental secretary. So, as with the NHS, they can only recruit foreigners who do not intend to stay.

  11. bloke in spain,

    “I take my car to the local garage, for servicing, but it doesn’t always change the oil & once a wheel fell off. But the mechanic is very successful in racing the car he’s built & maintains, Which is his main interest.”

    To complete the analogy: and you’ve already paid him for 10 services and it’s really complicated to get your money back. And if you stop using him, you’ve got to wait nearly a year to get another mechanic.

    Personally, I think it’s all rather funny when you can learn a ton of skills from online training services charging $25/month.

  12. One of my lecturers was German, his accent was strong enough that I missed a chunk of what he said. He was however for all that a good speaker and presenter of the information.
    Another lecturer was English and a really bad speaker – she’d turn her head from side to side to speak to all sides of the wide but not very long lecture room, lipreading her was almost impossible and hearing aids had a hard job coping with her. Don’t think I ever learnt anything from her, the German guy at least piqued my interest and could pick up some stuff from context.

  13. Not convinced about the alleged lack of doctorates. There may be a shortage as far as industry is concerned but there are at least 10 churned out for every tenure track position, and it’s the intention of at least 8 of those to go for one (so 7 end up disappointed).

    It’s been part of the standard academics’ qualification set for a long long time, especially in sciences. Whatever palaeo-Oxbridge types who sneer at doctorates think. Scientific research has its methods and three years of 24 weeks in the library and seminars doesn’t and cannot teach you them. Admittedly a depressingly high proportion of doctoral slaves also fail to learn them.

    I know at my alma, in the school of biological sciences, there was only one member of academic staff (out of at least 200) without a PhD or equivalent. Ironically, it’s an absolute requirement for most junior research-only positions (at least puts you further up the salary scale).

    It’s true that most lecturers hate lecturing. While I was dong my not quite getting one of those lectureships I was thoroughly pissed off at the lack of opportunity to get teaching experience from the lecturers who complained about having to do it. Now in industry I actually do quite a lot of teaching.

  14. I don’t seem to recall learning anything useful from lectures. To be fair, I didn’t get to many.Somewhere along the line the whole point of university seems to have been forgotten.

  15. This comment thread is proving a revelation.
    As non-university educated, I’ve always had a certain suspicion & contempt for my qualified betters. Looks like it was well founded.
    Let’s admit it. Your university system’s not fit for purpose. To impart the information necessary for a degree is a teacher’s job. Not that of a researcher, who’s teaching to pay the rent, let’s him do research. No wonder it takes 3 years to inadequately absorb what most people could manage in a fraction of the time. You’re just the meal ticket, lets academics play with their toys.
    And you pay for this?

  16. BiG, you’re correct for stinks subjects, but I think the arts & social sciences have traditionally been different, in the UK at least, and are going through a rapid catching-up process.

  17. The “shortage of doctorates” thing is ancient history isn’t it? Long been standard in research-oriented science and maths departments. Rare to find those without even in humanities now? Admittedly law faculty even at top unis often don’t have doctorates but in that field the gap between academic and professional practice is narrow.

    Definitely true there is a surplus of PhDs in some sense. Cheap lab labour in sciences, and demographically a different kettle of fish in humanities (mostly, as I understand it, mature students studying part-time). Neither likely to gain a long-term full-time post in academe. But the science ones may earn a few years on the (surprisingly lowly paid) postdoc merrygoround before dropping out of the hunt and going into industry or whatever.

    At least industry wants them, on the whole – the humanities PhD-holders are unlikely to experience such strong demand! Though if they mostly took their doctorates “for fun” rather than out of expectation of a future under gleaming spires then I don’t suppose they’ve been hard done by. So long as their PhD is understood as a niche consumer good rather than an investment in human capital …

  18. BiS is about right.

    Universities were initially created as a way for academics to make a living. The lecture is a pre-Gutenberg way of disseminating information.

    But hard to say they’re not ‘fit for purpose’ when there is no agreement about what their ‘purpose’ is. The ‘customers’ (students and, since we’re paying for most of them, the government and wider society) haven’t really thought about or decided what they are for.

  19. “Universities were initially created as a way for academics to make a living. ”
    They were initially centers of teaching.
    In their second week they managed to dig themselves out a monopoly & have been grazing on that ever since..

  20. bloke in spain – “As non-university educated, I’ve always had a certain suspicion & contempt for my qualified betters. Looks like it was well founded.”

    Actually I think it is correct but not well founded. You should have contempt for the university educated but not for this aspect of it.

    “To impart the information necessary for a degree is a teacher’s job. Not that of a researcher, who’s teaching to pay the rent, let’s him do research.”

    Well yes and no. A university lecturer should not be a teacher, he should be a university lecturer. And if a student gets an active researcher, then that is all the better as far as the teaching goes. Simply repeating the same old thing for the 20th year in a row – which many lecturers actually do – is not good for anyone. At the same time, a researcher does benefit from having to explain his ideas clearly and concisely so that a student can understand. On top of which students benefit by *not* being spoon fed as in high school. It is in their best interests that they have to work hard to follow what is going on. They learn to be active learners, not just passive resentful pupils as in High School.

    All in theory of course. Reality does not always work that way.

    “No wonder it takes 3 years to inadequately absorb what most people could manage in a fraction of the time.”

    That is because students are too busy on the important things in university life – drinking and shagging each other.

  21. I loved teaching when I was a doctoral student. As a New Zealander at an Australian university I had great fun warning my students that in the current course, they had another bloody unintelligible foreigner lecturing them.

  22. You used the word ‘unintelligible’ for a room full of Australians? Did you you ask them to use joined-up writing for their essays as well?

  23. @Ironman

    For example: I bet Ivan Horrocks charges £9k for his courses; English is regarded as his first language, but he doesn’t speak it in any way that I can understand.

    I am amazed that you have been able to hear Ivan Bollocks speak at all, given that he seems to spend every waking hour with his tongue embedded far up Richard Murphy’s gary glitter.

  24. I have the benefit of having graduated in both “hard” science and “soft” Jessica studies (modern languages actually, but in the Arts faculty so still technically Jessica territory). In the latter you got about twice the credit for half the work, and there was no prospect of doing any hands-on lab-type stuff, but there the difference ended. The “lecture” might have started life as a bloke reading from a book but anyone doing that these days, whatever the subject, needs to be shot.

    Learning is hugely affected by group size. With a class of 1-5 it’s hard to maintain momentum. 30 is an upper limit for meaningful interaction, which is where the criticism of the lecture with its hall full of 200 students comes in. Look at it in cost terms. You could put on a 1 hour talk for 200 people commercially (as part of a bigger event) for around €5 a head. A university should be able to do it for less than half of that. Call it €2. So you could sell the same thing online to 10 times as many people for €0.2 each, goes the argument.

    Trouble is, online, people don’t pay the same attention. Same effect that telephone or webex meetings are more frustrating and less productive than face to face meetings. I have lost count of the number of times when 6 webexes have been set up rather than F2F to “save costs” and then finally a one-day war room was called and everything fixed in a fraction of the time.

    The psychology (and there is _tons_ of psych in teaching and learning) is completely different when there is a live person in the same room doing it rather than a remote voice at the end of a dodgy Skype connection. I suspect the additional learning value outweighs the cost. Only one way to find out I suppose – leave it to the market.

  25. @SMfS
    ” At the same time, a researcher does benefit from having to explain his ideas clearly and concisely so that a student can understand. ”
    Who gives a f**k? It’s that production/consuption, point of thing. The researcher isn’t the consumer, here.

    ” A university lecturer should not be a teacher, he should be a university lecturer. And if a student gets an active researcher, then that is all the better as far as the teaching goes. Simply repeating the same old thing for the 20th year in a row – which many lecturers actually do – is not good for anyone.”
    Well yes. A university lecturer should be a highly skilled occupation. Maybe he shouldn’t be “Simply repeating the same old thing for the 20th year in a row”
    This is something students should expect because that’s what they’re paying for. In time as well as money. Not for someone who’s lecturing because they’re obliged to to bring in the beans.
    Teaching anything is a skill of its own. if you know how to teach, you’re 3/4 of the way to teaching anything.

    ” On top of which students benefit by *not* being spoon fed as in high school. It is in their best interests that they have to work hard to follow what is going on. They learn to be active learners, not just passive resentful pupils as in High School.”

    But these are people taking a large chunk out of their lives & incurring considerable debt, to go to university. if they can’t hack that they shouldn’t be there.
    You don’t get shagging, just at uni. And student union cards were never hard to forge..

  26. Hegel was a notoriously bad lecturer, so hunched over his notes that noone could hear a word.
    They should have fired him but alas they didn’t.

  27. One of ours used to fall asleep during his own lectures. There was a long bench at the front of the lecture room, with a sink and a tall curved tap. He used to sit hunched on his chair, leaning over the sink with his chin resting on the tap, droning away.
    One morning, he sort of petered out in his usual way, half way through a sentence. We waited for him to suddenly come round, and he didn’t. After about ten minutes, we came to the dreadful dawning realisation that he must’ve died.
    We ran out into the corridor, and begged a passing postgrad student for help, “We reckon the poor old bugger’s dead, and we don’t know what to do next.”. He just grinned, picked an empty crisp packet out of the bin, inflated it, and burst it right next to the “stiff”, who promptly rallied, and continued droning as if nothing had happened.

  28. If university is to operate as any sort of market, how do students get the information they need, e.g. Shit lecturers? Also, how easily can they change if the course and/or college turns out to be a turnip? Very difficult.

    So, lots of colleges end up charging the maximum, £9,000.

    As someone who hovered on the fringe of the academically gifted I enjoyed a free university education in the far off old days. Would I go these days? Probably not.

  29. We had a Nigerian lecture at Manchester who nobody could understand, and he was utterly shit at teaching as well. As were most of them, now you mention it.

  30. They all charge 9K because they would all charge a lot more if they could.

    Or rather, those that could charge a lot more would and the rest would work out how to charge less.

    There’s a blog post for Tim in there about the economics of how price capping is actually ensuring that crap colleges get to charge as much for Jessica Studies as top unis do for medicine.

  31. “if they can’t hack that they shouldn’t be there”: I directed just such comment to a whinging parent recently. He got awfully huffy-puffy.

  32. bloke in spain – “Who gives a f**k? It’s that production/consuption, point of thing. The researcher isn’t the consumer, here.”

    But what are we funding? Actually the researcher is an important part of the purpose of the university – probably more so to the general community than the students. This is not High School. The teaching is important to the students, but is it to the rest of us?

    “Well yes. A university lecturer should be a highly skilled occupation. Maybe he shouldn’t be “Simply repeating the same old thing for the 20th year in a row””

    Skilled in what sense? You want them to be part of the entertainment industry? We cater too much to the need of the young to be entertained. They have gutted the museums of the world of all real content because they think it is more important to entertain than educate. The worse the lectures are, the better it is for the students.

    “This is something students should expect because that’s what they’re paying for. In time as well as money. Not for someone who’s lecturing because they’re obliged to to bring in the beans.”

    They are bringing the beans in exchange for something. Obviously they are going to get someone who needs the beans. What are they paying for? Not, I would hope, for a dumbed down version of Blue Peter. They are paying for the access to world-class research. In theory. So they can become researchers too. For that, they need to be taught by real researchers.

    “Teaching anything is a skill of its own. if you know how to teach, you’re 3/4 of the way to teaching anything.”

    Sure. And it is an important one. But which do you think is better for a First Year student, to have lectures and tutorials with a High School teacher who doesn’t really understand the material well, but is a charming performer, or with Stephen Hawking? Who does still teaching First years at Cambridge I believe.

    “But these are people taking a large chunk out of their lives & incurring considerable debt, to go to university. if they can’t hack that they shouldn’t be there.”

    Exactly what I think. Yet here you are saying that if they can’t hack a complex thought expressed poorly, it is the lecturer’s fault and not the students for not being up to it.

    “You don’t get shagging, just at uni. And student union cards were never hard to forge..”

    You get to shag the important people.

  33. Reading some of the comments, it sounds like the more dismal end of the NHS.
    “Count yourself lucky we’re doing you the favour of educating you. Be thankful for what you get.”
    Is this really what you want from a C21st higher education system?

  34. bloke in spain – “Reading some of the comments, it sounds like the more dismal end of the NHS. “Count yourself lucky we’re doing you the favour of educating you. Be thankful for what you get.” Is this really what you want from a C21st higher education system?”

    Well it was probably a mistake to make all universities the same. A lot of education is vocational and does not belong at a research university. Chartered surveying. Accounting. Law. It is reasonable to say that those students have a fixed body of knowledge they need to learn and that the most painless way of helping them learn it is to find a talented High School teacher and promoted him to a Poly.

    However some people still need to go to a real university. Where they will do best if they are taught, preferably in very small classes, by real researchers. And yes, it does not matter all that much if their English is bad.

    We over-cater for the young. In my day, which was already dumbed down, they gave you a form and told you to fill it out. Now they give students one-on-one tutorials to show them how to fill out a form with counsellors available if they feel too traumatised by the whole experience.

    It matters because at some point, students have to deal with the real world. In the real world they don’t give a f**k if you think that calling a manhole cover a manhole cover gives you pre-rape trauma. Nor do they hand out the stuff you need on a platter. For virtually all jobs requiring a degree, someone has to be able to sift through a lot of confusing material, find the stuff that is relevant, and present it in a simple but clear form. Evidence is always hidden and not immediately recognisable. Even more so for research. The sooner that people learn to deal with that, the better.

    It is not that students should be happy with what they are getting. Although anyone going to a handful of universities and paying only 9,000 quid ought to be. It is that they should understand what it is they are getting and why it is valuable. There are Cambridge colleges with more Nobel prizes than all but a tiny number of countries. They did not get that way because they gave a f**k whether their lecturers were trained seals or not.

  35. BIS – there is no way for a lecturer in 12 weeks of 2 hour lectures – or hour lecture and hour seminar – are going to teach a subject. They go through the highlights or particular issues.
    As has been the case for some centuries most students read for a degree.
    Might be 2 hours of lectures in a week for that module, another 10 hours reading that week for that module.
    And 3 or 4 modules a week.

    A small subject like the American Civil War, got to be well over 50,000 books on the subject. No way can be covered in 24 hours of lectures in any depth. Can go into enough material by reading however to do a decent assignment about a certain aspect of the war or about particular battle.

    Can get away with attending none of the lectures and still get a decent grade, just attending lectures and not reading pretty much limits to at best a poor grade however.

  36. It does n’t really matter how good Economics lecturers’ English is (where this discussion started),they all have to describe the banks creating money as “lending ” and other linguistic distortions presently requiring the B of E itself to complain about what is depicted in textbooks (not just speech) about how money gets into the system.
    Hardly a trivial academic matter: if the banks can create money out of nothing so can, probably more rightfully, the State obviating the present need for governments to borrow and, to some extent,levy tax.
    Of course this is Economic heresy. What other modern academic discourse has the category of heresy still enforced with full arbitrary violence to the notion of freedom of expression?

  37. Bloke in Germany,

    “The psychology (and there is _tons_ of psych in teaching and learning) is completely different when there is a live person in the same room doing it rather than a remote voice at the end of a dodgy Skype connection. I suspect the additional learning value outweighs the cost. Only one way to find out I suppose – leave it to the market.”

    In the case of people I know who are independent contractors who need software training, none of them pay for classroom courses. Most small software consultancies don’t use classroom courses. Classroom courses still exist, but they’re mostly used by government and the sort of companies that aren’t going to go to the wall, like electricity companies and banks.

    Your argument about attention has some merit. Classroom teaching has some benefits over CBT. But, the costs are so much higher that even at some loss of performance, it still works out cheaper. I pay $25/month for an all-you-can-eat online training company, which includes courses in C# programming. If I do a 5 day classroom course in that subject, it’s £2500. Even if it takes longer, it still pays off (although in reality, training companies love to pad out training courses and work at a leisurely pace, and most employees aren’t going to complain because they’re getting paid for a semi-jolly).

  38. Reed: You a socialist whinging about the state forcing its hirelings to teach what it tells ’em to?. On account of the huge academic freedom enjoyed behind the Iron Curtain?.

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