science

I need to get this off of my chest

When I signed up to study Neuroscience at Bristol University, I was so excited. I thought I FINALLY knew what I wanted to be. A neuroscientist.

When I narrowly missed my offer and had to wait just over a month to find out if the department accepted any near misses, I was preparing for the worst. So when they actually accepted me I was so so ready to get cracking with neuroscience!

So much so that I bought a load of text books and started keeping up with neuroscience in the news. I was the most prepared first year I knew when I started.

My first year was amazing. Full of fascinating content, great friends and partying multiple times a week. I even had after-gig drinks with my favourite band at the time – Needtobreathe:

NEEDTOBREATHE!!
NEEDTOBREATHE!!

In the end, I got the 2:1, but could have done so much better. I was bedridden just before one of my exams that actually ended up counting for the most of my year. Unfortunate, but I got over it.

Second year was when things got weird. They had reshuffled our units that year and introduced some new ones. These ‘new’ ones essentially just recapped the previous year’s content with a couple of extra pieces of information. We were also made to do a unit called BREES (biomedical research employability and enterprise skills) that was apparently supposed to be about careers skills. In reality, the assessment was unfair and based on a ranking system with only half of the content being assessed. This year started to count towards my degree (15%), but due to lack of motivation from the crap content, I just scraped a 2:1 this time.

I decided to bump up my degree to an MSci, involving a year out in the wide world of working. I’ve worked in a lab over the past year, looking into an aspect that seems to go wrong in Alzheimer’s disease. I’ll be brutally honest. The lifestyle that is involved in becoming a researcher is just plain horrible. The ongoing long hours with basic pay and increasing demands is apparently acceptable given the cause. I’ve read articles where people say that they have no work/life balance and you often have to make the work your whole life in order to succeed. Considering the work is mainly reading waffly papers, pipetting tiny amount of liquid into other tiny amount of liquid and maybe getting some results at the end of it for someone else in the world to claim is total rubbish, I don’t get why people do it.

ELISA experiments - the bane of my 3rd year project.
ELISA experiments – the bane of my 3rd year project.

I have to complete a 15,000 word dissertation for this project year, which is nearly double the 8K equivalent of a normal final year dissertation. The difference is my one counts for 6% of my degree. A final year one? More like 20%. What’s more, my department is full of old fogies that literally don’t want to mark higher than 80% for anything because ‘back in the day’ it was unheard of (literally the director of my course has told me this). So in reality, I’m only fighting for 3-4.5% of my degree as it’s highly unlikely they’ll fail me if I just submit something to do with science. That’s 1.5% of my degree that I’m slugging my guts out for.

It’s not like I have much else to look forward to in my final year either. I have a grand total of 35 days of contact time for the whole year. Of those, none of them are 9-5pm either. In fact, I average about 4-6 hours of lectures a week from October-February (excluding the 5 week vacation over Christmas and exams by the way). Oh and guess what? The units are yet again looking like mostly repeats from 1st and 2nd year topics… Great…

Bear in mind that I’m also paying the increased £9000 a year for this. For a so called ‘prestige’ university, my department doesn’t seem to value student satisfaction in the slightest. The National Student Survey found that 77% of students were satisfied with my course. Not bad, you might think. But when you pick it apart, this score has been bumped up by 90%+ scores all based on good IT resources, library quality and lecture content. 45% agreed that feedback had been received promptly and a measly 35% agreed that said feedback helped clarify where they went wrong.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this as I got three lines of feedback for an essay I wrote back in January. One line stated I’d messed one of my references up (I think I got a full-stop in the wrong place or something). One said to be more descriptive about a certain topic (impossible with the word limit). The last simply said ‘take care of terminology used in abstract’. Seriously, what does that even mean? I was awarded 78% for that piece of work, which is amazing, but I fail to see how those three lines of feedback can justify a 22% deduction of marks. I’m not asking for 100% all the time of course, I just wish their marking was more thorough and fair to students.

I got 4 X 'good', 3 X 'good/excellent' and 9 X 'excellent'. That's 78% apparently.
I got 4 X ‘good’, 3 X ‘good/excellent’ and 9 X ‘excellent’. That’s 78% apparently.

Lastly, all of these issues are inevitably reflected in the final degree marks. In my degree, at my university, last year 74% of graduates got a 2:1 degree. 11% got a 1st (the highest) and 5% got a 2:2 or a 3rd. Note that nobody failed. Considering our final year is heavily dependent on coursework and exams (which are subsequently half essay based), it’s easy to see how the department is manipulating grades via their unfair marking scheme and reluctance to provide students with past exams or even feedback on any exam ever taken. I know this isn’t right as I have friends from other universities that have exactly this kind of support structure in place and it works very well.

Source: https://unistats.direct.gov.uk/subjects/study/10007786FT-7PYSI004UU-201314/ReturnTo/
Source: https://unistats.direct.gov.uk/subjects/study/10007786FT-7PYSI004UU-201314/ReturnTo/

Despite my efforts to discuss these issues with the department officials, I have consistently been brushed off and told ‘there’s nothing more we can do’. I call BULLSHIT to that. There are courses at Bristol that work perfectly fine and have high student satisfaction and grades that reflect the student cohort. There are neuroscience courses elsewhere that cope, so don’t tell me there’s nothing you can do when you have students willing to help and other courses to use as examples.

This is why I feel no remorse in revealing this to the world wide web as I have done everything I can to help. They just don’t seem to want help. Bristol seems to have this attitude of ‘why change!?’ because year after year they still remain one of the most competitive universities in the country despite falling down the league tables due to student satisfaction. The ironic thing is, academics keep shrugging their shoulders and mumbling ‘what’s going wrong?!’.

All you have to do, Bristol, is listen to your students. It should be a fundamental part of education.

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