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Alchemea: A Real World Education - “Tough Love for All”

Christian Huant
Alchemea: A Real World Education - “Tough Love for All”

The latest installment of Audio Pro International's Alchemea column sees the college's Director & Principal, Christian Huant, talks about the need for "tough love" in education...

For years, we have been enrolling students from all over the world. This brings a cultural and musical diversity to the college that is priceless. Except that now, this has been given a price tag. Recent governments have rightly identified that large numbers of students have been disappearing into the “system” after entering the UK under the pretence of taking a course. This has resulted in thousands of “visa farms”, masquerading as colleges, being closed down and all private, vocational FE colleges being subject to rigorous inspections and having to justify their existence. This has resulted in colleges like Alchemea having to pay substantial fees for the privilege of enrolling students from outside of the EU. The financial and HR burden placed upon honest private institutions grows year on year and it is easy to become cynical about these inspections, seeing them as a simple paperwork exercise with a primary purpose of raising money for the treasury’s coffers. More worryingly I have also been faced with a rather unsettling moral dilemma.

It appears that the government's approach to education is somewhat at odds with some of my beliefs, and the ethos that Alchemea has embodied for 2 decades. Simply put, the government's idea is that, if a candidate is suitable for a course, and has the right aptitude, and if the course is well designed and well taught, then no one should ever fail. This makes some sense, on paper, but in practice it has rather dark side effects. One could rephrase this creed as follows: only students who have previously studied the subject matter, at a lower level, can apply; and, if these students fail, then the course is rubbish.

The first hurdle is assessing a candidate's suitability for a given course. In the government's system, this means we can only enrol students who have just come out of a music tech course (at a lower level than ours), or students who have studied and done reasonably well at A level maths, physics, electronics and music. Audio Engineering is, after all, partly a technical/scientific pursuit, and partly an artistic/musical one. One could argue that, in order to be a successful engineer or producer, one has to be a semi-proficient electronics engineer and a competent musician. And yet, many successful engineers and producers out there are neither. Undeniably, one has to be 'musical' but not necessarily a musician. How does one test for this, when this talent may be innate and, as yet, undiscovered? Similarly, while a solid understanding of underlying scientific principles makes for a better practitioner, one does not need to be academically minded in order to grasp broad concepts.

At Alchemea, our philosophy, since our beginnings in 1992, has been to be inclusive; to provide candidates with the education they require from the ground up and we have, time and again, produced successful runners and assistants, many of whom have rapidly risen to becoming engineers and producers to the stars. These individuals often come to us with no academic track record, little interest in science and no musical background. And yet, they have been very successful, both while on our courses and beyond. Should we have restricted entry and not allowed these candidates to apply for our courses just because they have no track record? If so, why? Because we are afraid that they might fail and make us look bad? That's a poor indictment of one's self belief in what they do, surely.

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Of course, over the years, some candidates have not done well in their studies. In my opinion, all those candidates share one thing in common: they lack real motivation for hard work. This is in contrast with other candidates who come to us with limited aptitude but end up doing well because they have an eagerness to learn, a real desire to apply themselves and they will work hard to put into practice what they have been taught. Very few of those graduates have embarrassed themselves after graduation, in employment.

Those who do not succeed on our courses tend to have relatively poor attendance records, for various reasons, genuine or not. For many, it is vague excuse after vague excuse, and the ever-popular 'flu' attack. By missing classes and practical studio sessions, these students undermine themselves. Of course, we really try hard to help them catch up and even offer deferment options where appropriate but some students don't help themselves and it doesn't matter how many resources one deploys in order to help them, it will not work. It's attitude, not aptitude, and this is harder to assess, even on interview when faced with candidates who are desperate to get on the course. They will 'talk the talk' but then fail to 'walk to walk'.

I suspect every educational institution, in their heart of hearts, knows that one can lead a horse to water but cannot make it drink. This is why, sadly, when an institution is overly worried about retention rates and success rates (league tables!), the idea of helping a candidate to achieve in spite of themselves can actually become doing the work for them. Teachers start teaching to the exam rather than the subject, often at the expense of encouraging lateral thinking.

Many learning providers now offer students their own server space to save their projects. These drives are usually backed up automatically every day. While there are definite merits to such systems, we have avoided going down this route so far because we feel that it is important for students to get into the habit of backing up their own work. If it turns out they lose it, they either re-do it in time for the submission deadline (long hours of work ahead!) or they will receive a zero mark for that assignment. Simple; just like the real world. It is a hard lesson but I can guarantee that, by the end of the course, it is a lesson learnt. I'd be very surprised if one of our graduates didn't religiously back-up their work once they are actually working in the real world. Call it 'Tough Love' but I feel our job as an education institution is done.

So what about retention rates and pass rates? You may be surprised to read that we have excellent retention rates (way over 90%) and pass rates (again, over 90% of those who complete the course). We drive our students towards the Distinction grade, and approximately two thirds of those who enroll achieve this. How can this be? I believe it is because we place some of the responsibility for success onto the learner themselves. By not having everything done for them, learners engage and actually feel more valued. If they work hard and succeed (which they tend to - we are not unreasonable in our expectations), they feel a sense of achievement and self-worth. They earned their success. That makes them happy, and better people, not just better engineers. I guess that means we are a 'proper course', well designed and well taught, and that's why we have passed our inspections with flying colours. Most importantly, our approach is recognised by the industry and we are proud that for many employers, Alchemea is their first port of call when recruiting assistants and runners.

Ultimately, I strongly believe that, for a qualification to be worth anything, it must be challenging. This will sadly lead to some students failing the course. It is these failures that actually make the successes even more worthy.


Tags: education

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