Humans rather than Machines!

by Ivan Cardoso

 This article was inspired by a comment made (see below*) on one of the SocialMet facebook wall posts. It struck me in that students may actually have a sense of what being taught by “humans” and “machines” is like. What I would like to ask is: do they really think that lecturers have become machines? Maybe we should blame “Taylor, Bedeux, Gantt, Gilbreth and others for suggesting that it was really possible to control employees in increasingly minute and mechanic detail” (Parker, 2002) with Parker, in the Against Management book, arguing that this obsession with measuring, control and productivity is removing some humanity of the world of work.

When Parker talks about management in universities he also argues that the world is becoming “increasingly managerial and marketized”. Measurement and performance, with fancy words such as ‘KPI’, ‘CRM’, ‘Student Charter’ are present and need to be acknowledged – I’m not saying they are bad – I’m part of the Student Charter project – but they represent the “corporate-ization” of universities.

Blame it on capitalism, on social inclusion, governments. We could write a whole thesis on why higher education has become so strict and mechanical. Probably everyone – students and lecturers alike – dream of going to Oxford, Cambridge or one of those American Ivy League Universities, apart from Elly Nowell of course, as they represent the best in higher education. They are good because demand drives supply, and when they supply Prime-Ministers, Journalists and Broadcasters, and they all meet and gather their influence is hard not to believe that Oxford, for example, is the right place to have an education – see the the famous oxinians.

Maybe the perceptions of students are a bit different to those of lecturers. The thing that student don’t often see is the number of tasks that lecturers at London Met usually need to do in their back offices. We, the students, imagine senior lecturers sitting in a fancy office with 2 assistants replying to their personal e-mails and sorting out their holidays to the Maldives, but is that really the reality? The reality is that lecturers are becoming more and more skeptical of their position, and the reason is that they need to defend it. Job cuts, de-motivation, technology advancements and all the other changes happening that they need to put with create pressure on them. Students are more and more demanding too, so lecturers need to also be more demanding. They need to be lecturers, mentors, assistants. Probably in the future they will (also) be in the Undergraduate Centre filing the mitigating circumstances for some undergraduate student.

From the student point of view, I can understand the “machine” rhetoric. It is difficult to engage with lecturers in the classroom that don’t seem very engaged themselves – especially when students do not behave like adults. Maybe it is a psychological effect of being accepted at London Met, a University that didn’t score well on the national university leagues – London Met was for the first time in a university league table in 2011 – and so students feel less pressurized to work hard. Or maybe university is not for everyone (so some students just aren’t suited to it) but everyone wants to make us believe the opposite. What some may call social pressure is regarded as a necessity.

Going back to the “machine” argument, perhaps life itself has become a routine task where everything we do is controlled, measured. Performance needs to be achieved, we need to wake up at 6 in the morning and go to bed at the same time – lecturers and students don’t often have much spare time due to all the work they need to do – students often have to work (at jobs) as well as study, and lecturers need to cover different aspects of their work and private life – just to perform their tasks takes 24/7 if necessary. That is not necessarily bad, what needs to change is the interaction between lecturer and student. I’m not saying that we all should go out and get smashed one night but what about a coffee in the university cafeteria and talk about how life is? Is that going too far? Not in my opinion. My tutor, mentor, lecturer, guide needs to know as much about me as I should want to know about him or her. But wait, there are around 30,000 students and London Met and we have 756 academic staff and 955 administrative/technical/manual and casual staff, so that reality is a fairy-tale. (London Met Annual Report, July 2011)

Humans rather than machines, students rather than numbers, lecturers rather than administrative assistants. The world is your oyster is what we all say, but the world doesn’t sleep and machines certainly don’t need to sleep. The truth is that humans do!

Note from the Editor: These views are Ivans own and not connected to the original facebook conversation. 

* “Studying at a University where contempt for students is less pronounced than at London Met, and which ensures that there are more teachers than managers, so that we can be taught by people rather than machines/computers” – this was one response to ‘Five years from now, where do you see yourself? Will you have a job in the field you really want? Will you have a mortgage and a car and all the rest of it? Or will you do something different, or will you even have a choice at all? How do you see it?’  Full conversation available at