Bridging the gap: Managing undergraduate expectations in the humanities and social sciences

By Mike Finn -

The background – why expectations must be managed

Within British independent secondary schools, the phrase ‘expectations management’ is ubiquitous. These institutions have had the cash nexus1 at their core at least since the major expansion of the UK’s public schools in the mid-Victorian period; they have huge institutional memory when it comes to dealing with the expectations of those who are paying considerable sums of money for their education.

British universities, by contrast, have almost no institutional memory in this regard; witness the near-panic with which academics and university administrators have faced the post-2010 cohort of ‘demanding’, ‘needy’ and ‘pushy’ student ‘customers’ who seem to expect quite a bit more bang for their buck. Nowhere is this more true than in the humanities and the social sciences, where the oft-heard complaints over the low contact hours on some courses reflect an underlying tension between the ‘delivery’ of these undergraduate courses and the way in which the natural sciences are taught (or even the same course at a different institution).  In the eyes of the new student-consumer, the latter seems to offer better VFM.2

What’s clear is that disgruntled and defensive responses won’t do. Academics can and must be far more pro-active than they have been up to this point in addressing the changing expectations of the new student-consumer. If academics truly believe in the quality of what they deliver (and there is growing evidence that they should3), then they must ensure that students understand why their course is taught in the way it is. So what can be done to ensure a healthier set of expectations on the part of humanities and social science undergraduates?

Outreach and integration with schools

Universities must do far more to inform potential applicants at the secondary level as to the nature of what their courses will involve and what an undergraduate education actually is. As any armchair hack knows, economics is fundamentally about the accurate ascription of value, and thus the dissemination of the correct information by which consumers may make ‘informed choices’. This last was the title of the Russell Group’s much-vaunted publication on subject requirements for entry for particular courses.4 Speaking as an educator who has worked both in university admissions and in schools preparing candidates for university, I can only echo Stefan Collini’s comments that there are few consumers in the world as ill-informed as the 17-year-old university applicant.5 Often they only have a hazy idea of what ‘uni’ is about, they do not know how to evaluate the quality of different sources of information, and they are certainly (by and large) not ‘rational’ in the sense most economists would understand.

Universities need to help here, because schools are struggling. The revolution in higher education means that those teachers who graduated a decade ago, who are now likely to be Heads of Sixth Form and thus responsible for supervising university applications, are often horrendously out-of-date in terms of their knowledge of the system and what is on offer. If universities wish to avoid disgruntled students it places the onus on them to get the right students in the first place. Hitherto the main focuses of recruitment have been on widening participation and bums-on-seats in the wake of the demise of the humanities teaching grant. In both cases, honesty has not always been integral to marketing strategies. This has to change. Students need a realistic appraisal of what their potential institution’s academic culture is like; it is not enough to refer students to prospectuses and open days, which often sweeten the pill. A large scale rollout of school-university partnerships where sixth-formers spend a day attending university classes (akin to the Cambridge masterclass system6) could make a real difference here, and could be an area where the university mission (lobby) groups take a lead. Universities must involve themselves more on a continuous basis with schools. With schools now increasingly taking the lead on initial teacher education, a reflexive arrangement might be developed where, as CPD, university academics in teaching posts were able to spend a term in a maintained school every four years. Teachers in maintained schools would also be eligible to apply to return to university departments on the same basis, either for further study or as visiting fellows. Shared knowledge and practice would do much to improve the information given to potential applicants. This would be a task where, as with the Informed Choices document, university mission groups might reasonably be expected to take a lead.

Contracts and integrated assessment

Student contracts are vaguely despised by many academics who believe themselves to have been reared in the old world (which never really existed) of purer motivations for study, but they are becoming increasingly common.7 Oxford’s introduction of contracts in 2006 was principally aimed to limit the university and its colleges’ liabilities in relation to delivery8, but contracts can be used in a much more sophisticated way to educate students into the ethos of undergraduate education. If they haven’t done the reading, there can be sanctions; theoretically of course, such sanctions already exist, but are seldom enforced. This is related to the issue of integrated, continuous assessment. Continuous assessment is commonplace in schools, but rare in many universities in the UK. In the United States, where the student-consumer is an accepted historical reality, continuous assessment – ‘teaching to the test’ – is endemic.9 There is a middle way. In the US system, despite the much-vaunted defences of ‘liberal arts’, it is often the case that students graduate with a smattering of vocabulary from a variety of disciplines and an underdeveloped critical faculty. However, in the UK system, an adoption of contracts linked to continuous assessment would enable academics to more coherently set the terms of what and when students should learn. The alternative is simply to accept widespread plagiarism and grade inflation in the end-of-term/year assignments.

…and finally, delivery

It is a sine qua non of the above recommendations that the basics of teaching delivery must be met. Students might be overly-simplistic in thinking that more contact hours must be better, but they are not wrong when they react negatively to cursory feedback on assignments, assignments which are inappropriate to the course, lack of structure to undergraduate modules (which despite the Quality Assurance Agency, still happens) and unstructured teaching sessions. Indeed, much of the resistance within the academy to increasing the student workload is due to the fear that this will generate more marking, more danger of interaction with ‘pushy’ students demanding guidance. This won’t do. If academics in the humanities and social sciences are serious in their own complaints that students are engaged in insufficient personal study (the recommended private study times for most module courses are a joke in most senior common rooms) then they must be prepared to show leadership in reorienting student attitudes, not least for the fundamental ethical reason that only then will students truly get the best out of their courses, and themselves.


A critical aspect of humanities and social sciences education in the UK as it has been traditionally understood has been the student’s own voyage of self-directed discovery, where the student takes ownership of his/her educational trajectory through the course of their undergraduate degree. In today’s marketised society, this is all-too-often disparaged as simply laziness on the part of academics and a failure to provide what is paid for. Yet critical reflection and extensive self-motivated reading are critical aspects of the best of what a British undergraduate humanities education has to offer. Nonetheless, the nature of the world in which this education is being offered has changed. If scholars want students to understand the value of the kind of humanities education which has traditionally been provided in this country, if they want students to more firmly take responsibility for their own learning, then they must come part of the way. They can do this through taking a lead in expectations management, and taking ownership of their own curricula. Only then can the best of the old world be preserved for the benefit of the new.

Dr Mike Finn is a Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in the History of Education at Liverpool Hope University. He was previously a Research Fellow in History at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and a Bye-Fellow in History at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was a Kennedy Scholar in History at Harvard University in 2002-2003. He has taught widely in universities, and was head of department in two leading boarding schools. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, he is co-editor of The Coalition Effect (with Anthony Seldon) which will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2015.

Liverpool Hope University is the only ecumenical university in Europe, founded by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches as a symbol of cooperation in post-sectarian Liverpool. After some years as a university college, it achieved full university status in 2005. A teaching-led, research informed university, it has particular strengths in Educational Studies, drawing on its heritage in teacher-training and the academic study of pedagogy and practice.

  1. The relationship constituted by monetary transactions.
  2. J. O’Connell, ‘Changing student expectations’ in L. Coiffait (ed.), Blue Skies: Fresh Thinking on UK higher education. (London: Pearson, 2011), p. 116.
  3. Judith Burns, ‘Social science graduates have best job prospects’, BBC News Online, 28 October 2013 (accessed at, 30 October 2013).
  4. Russell Group, Informed Choices (London: Russell Group, first edition, 2011).
  5. S. Collini, ‘Sold out’, London Review of Books, 24 October 2013.
  6. ‘Subject masterclasses’, University of Cambridge (accessed at, 29 October 2013).
  7. ‘NUS alarmed by one-sided student contract’, Times Higher Education, 13 July 2007.
  8. J. Meikle, ‘Students told: Turn up or face expulsion’ Guardian, 11 September 2006.
  9. L. Cheseldine, ‘Do students need more teaching hours and tests?’, Guardian Online, 6 February 2013 (accessed at, 29 October 2013).



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