The Average Student

Rising workloads, rising costs pressuring UT students

The UT tower: So how's the view from up there?
The UT tower: So how's the view from up there? (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Have students and administration at UT Austin ever been more disconnected? Management tried to steamroll major changes at the Texas Union under the guise of student-driven reforms: The regents just pushed through a 3.95% tuition increase: And the student government elections are a referendum on the old boy network. But what is student life really like?

– According to the Texas Higher Education Board, the average UT Austin student workload has increased from 12.09 credit hours per semester in 2002 to 13.33 in 2008.

– With the introduction of new requirements like the interdisciplinary Signature Courses, students have to do more to graduate. For example, last fall, the Cockrell School of Engineering increased the number of required credit hours for graduation from 129 to 132. This comes solely from the American tertiary education system's belief that undergraduates need to be generalists, not specialists. Universities are then left to back-fill the massive gaps left in the knowledge base by the high school curriculum. Having been a teaching assistant, I was regularly astonished and depressed by how many smart, dedicated, hard-working students lacked what should be considered basic general knowledge.

Classes and labs are already scheduled between 8am and 10pm, and the university is considering reducing the number of lecturers and adjuncts, replacing small classes with impersonal mass lectures.

A new plan to set a five year cap to graduate will further increase the pressure for some students, especially those paying their own way through college or those that change their major.

– For contrast, in most European systems, students sign up for specific degree programs and the average bachelor's degree takes three years. Similarly, it is almost unheard of for graduate students to have to take (and pay for) courses outside of their area of study.

The problem is that everyone knows that these are problems, but quality of education is suffering in the name of cost cutting. Student Government President Liam O’Rourke said, "Class sizes swell, availability goes down, students can’t take the courses needed to graduate on time because a lot of them are sequential, and it becomes a problem that snowballs."

This isn't solely the university administration's fault: The legislature should hang its head in shame for its chronic underfunding for and lack of direction provided to tertiary institutions. In a recent conversation with UT Vice-President Kevin Hegarty, he said he was concerned that everyone seemed to want to make changes to the university system (a little more research here, a few more core courses there) but he really struggled to find anyone that could tell him exactly what the core purpose of universities is anymore. Until that is defined, then reforms run the risk of being directionless, and just put more financial and work pressure on students.

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