Get your a$$ to cla$$

Students argue that they should receive bonus points for turning up to lectures and seminars. They should be at liberty to turn up or not turn up at will. There are didactic reasons for why they are wrong, but there are also strong financial reasons: Students who skip classes cost the university large amounts of money every year. 

My university recently held elections for the student representatives on the University Council and the different Faculty Councils. The yearly election cycle is characterised by different student-political parties campaigning on essentially the same manifestos, with one or two issues proving to be especially popular each year. Last year it was lecturers’ poor command of English — from what I gather, because the manifestos weren’t exactly flawless either. This year it was attendance.

For as long as I can remember — it was this way when I was a student, and that is depressingly long ago — the university has had an 80% attendance requirement. Students need to be present at 80% of seminars, bums on seats and brains in gear, or risk exclusion from the course. (Some faculties have a similar requirement for lectures as well, but in my faculty it is seminars-only.) We have seven-week teaching blocks, so this means that in a course with 14 seminars, students can miss 3 classes with impunity; in a course with 7 seminars, they can miss two.

This is unfair, say our student representatives. Students are all adults, and are mature enough to decide for themselves whether attending seminars has any added value for them. One faction — I believe it was the blue-and-white ones — even engaged in neoliberal rhetoric about market forces in education. Punishing students for being absent is too negative. Instead they should be rewarded for showing up: positive reinforcement of academically desirable behaviour, plus the bonus points they receive represent the added value in our mercantile neoliberal university.

Sure. There are several didactic arguments why students should turn up to class, and I may revisit those at some later stage. I will stick to the economic rhetoric here and argue that student absence costs the university lots of money. University funding is a bit of a black box, so this story is necessarily simplified, but it should give a good idea of the general picture.

Teaching Funding 101

Lecturers are allocated classes based on the same system that allocates study credit to students. For each group of 20 students taking a 5 ECTS course, a lecturer also receives 5 credits. In total, they teach 60 credits per year. Large courses are good: taking 100 students through a 5 ECTS course adds up to 25 credits (but you only prepare once). Smaller courses are not so good: 10 students on the same course only pays 2,5 credits — or it will when they introduce half-groups next academic year. Of course lecturer wages differ by all sorts of variables, but in lecturer wages alone (before tax) it costs about €3000 for per group of students on a 5 ECTS course.

I taught a first-year course last block with 99 students enrolled. That is five groups of 20 students (minus one) so this course costs the university €15000. The problem is that weekly attendance hovered around the low 70s, so these students could have been taught in four groups rather than five, saving the university €3000. A simple calculation shows that for my department, across all courses in the three years of the BA programme, the money wasted per academic year at a 20% absentee rate is about equivalent to the yearly wages of one and half full-time senior academics (on a 60% teaching, 40% research contract) or three part-time junior academics (with 60% teaching but no research).

Absenteeism in a medium-sized department (under 300 students) costs anywhere between one and three jobs.

Advanced Teaching Funding

One of the didactic reasons for attendance is that attending classes usually gives better exam results. The non-attendees have a much higher risk of failing the course and having to re-take it the year after. This would be fine, if not for the fact that these students — university admin call them recidivists because that has a nice criminal ring to it — do not count towards group allocation. So rather than the groups of 20 students we’re paid to teach, we’re actually teaching groups of 23 or 24; rather than marking the 20 assignments we’re paid to mark, we’re actually marking 23 or 24.

If you fail a course and take it again, we teach you for free.

(Ironically, the official solution for this problem is to exempt recidivists from the attendance requirement, even though they would be well-advised to attend because they’ve already failed the course once.)

Quantum Teaching Funding

The money we’ve been talking about so far goes from the faculty to the lecturer. What we haven’t talked about yet is where that money ultimately comes from: government funding for universities, and the allocation of university funding across faculties. This is the area where Kafka and Orwell got their inspiration.

Universities receive funding from the government not for the number of students that are enrolled, but for the number of students that receive their degree. So for every student that gets handed their BA, the university is handed a sum of money that apparently corresponds to what went into teaching that student for three years. This is obviously 180 ECTS worth of courses in three years; any extra courses, any courses that have been re-taken are not funded. But also, students that never finish their degree remain unfunded forever.

If you don’t finish your degree, the university receives no money for you. Ever.

The university’s solution to this was introduced a few years ago: the BSA (bindend studieadvies). Students need to pass 45 out of 60 ECTS in their first year, otherwise they are not allowed to continue on their degree. The BSA is not intended to bully students — it’s just because students who pass fewer than 45 ECTS in their first year are at a much higher risk of never finishing their degree at all. Or put differently, they’re the ones the university will never get paid for. Best get rid of them as soon as possible.

The money that the university receives upon a student finishing their degree goes to the university at large, and it’s up to the university to divide that money over the different faculties. The logical thing would be to also pay faculties for the number of degrees they manage to churn out. But no… straight out of Kafka, the money goes to the faculty where the student first registered. So say you start studying mathematics, and after a few weeks decide you don’t like it and quit. You’ve hardly been to lectures, you’ve never taken any exams and at the beginning of the next semester you start with English. This is the thing for you, you shine and three years later you have your BA. The money goes to maths, and English is left with nothing.

(This system obviously disadvantages the Faculty of Arts. The number of students starting something in the hard sciences or psychology and then switching to the humanities vastly — really, vastly — outnumbers the number of students switching away from the humanities. Attempts by the Faculty of Arts to change the system have repeatedly been vetoed by the hard sciences faculties. Funny that.)

Students switching degrees are largely unfunded from a Faculty perspective.

I’m not denying that some classes possibly have little added value, and voting with your feet might seem like a good plan. But given that staff on permanent contracts are really difficult to fire, and given the immense financial ramifications of not turning up to class, it’s unlikely to work. There won’t be any money to hire more staff who can teach, or who can otherwise help provide that added value. If added value is what you want, you need to suck it up and get your ass to class.

You might learn something, too.

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