After having spent four months at an American university, one of the biggest differences I have noticed is how education here, contrary to Scandinavia, is something you pay for and, in that sense, a part of the free market. This affects a lot of things in and around American universities and their approach to teaching, which I see as problematic for a series of reasons.
One of these problems is exemplified in websites like Ratemyprofessors.com, where students can publicly and anonymously review professors and their courses. I had never heard about Rate My Professors before I came to the U.S. because it isn’t relevant in Denmark, where I’m from. But an American student explained to me that a lot of students in the U.S. go to the website to compare professors’ ratings before they decide which classes to take and which to avoid.
My first thought when I heard about Rate My Professors was it seems logical that, in a society like America where you have to pay for your education, you would want to see how the product has been reviewed before you buy it, exactly like you would when you purchase an item online. But although I see a page like Rate My Professors as a natural symptom of an unregulated education market and a paid-for university system, it also gave me a strange feeling and sparked skepticism in me.
I feel bad for the teachers who get horrible ratings on this digital, public pillory. And more importantly, it raises the larger question of education in America and what kind of quality it provides when it’s a business in which all the goods are ranked and in constant competition with one another.
One might argue that the free education market and sites like Rate My Professors makes the universities and teachers do their best every day, because they are dependent on returning and satisfied costumers, but at the same time we need to look at what kind of educational environment this really provides. And I don’t think this really make teachers teach and students learn better for a number of reasons.
How can anybody do their best at teaching and learning when everything is about performance and rating? A teaching assistant once told me that some teachers fear making the education level in their classes too difficult and their feedback on assignments too honest, because they are afraid of how it will be received and how they will be rated.
In Denmark, I have never experienced anything like this. People do not turn to a website before they choose classes; they simply choose the courses they find most important and interesting.
One might say that the free market results in better education because both universities and professors have to deliver in order to keep the customers. But it can also result in a twisted situation where universities and professors care more about how they are rated, graded and perceived than the quality of their students’ education. Students get a sugar-coated assignment back instead of one with honest, constructive criticism that they can really learn from.
Given that the purpose of going to a university is to get educated, receive constructive criticism and get wiser, I think this free market university model is a problem.