Friday, 7 August 2009

I suspect university is now to erode our independence, not to allow us to develop it.

There was an interesting opinion piece in the Independent this morning: "We have forgotten what university is for", by Nicholas Lezard, which seriously struck a chord. A recent survey found that 1 in 5 students are "unhappy" with their university courses; though what they are unhappy about is not yet known. Lezard writes about how university has turned from a lesson in joy, life skills, and adulthood, into something where "anything that is not applicable to a guaranteed financial outcome is increasingly suspect". It's a career move now, just like how agreeing with Tony became a career move rather than a principle if you're a backbench politician.

Lezard writes, "We are in the grip of a joyless, bleak utilitarianism, one whose gaze is becoming fixed not on the horizon, or the stars, or the bigger picture, but on the bottom line: the line of economy, of cost/benefit analysis, a world of bean-counters, box-ticking and assessments."

"Don't get me started," I hear many of you reply, groaning about all the extra nonsense you're landed with in the workplace. Unless of course you subscribe to such things, and talk about how today's school pupils are the "best in Europe", meaning that they pass our exams better than the Finns do - while other surveys find that our pupils are among the least educated (getting to know many non-English students in the UK and in Spain certainly bore that out).

It's certainly true that things like this are a childhood toy of a dream to be put away once you're sensible and ready for a tick-box and agree-with-the-boss career:

Credit: APOD, 3 years ago yesterday (I was clicking around randomly and accidentally stumbled upon it. Yes - a piece of that sky is my new title heading!)

The stars may look pretty, but they won't fill your bank account, etc. etc. etc. etc.

Lezard chose an interesting little snippet to illustrate the "degradation": that in his old college, there is no longer any means of cooking except with a microwave oven. "If you want to turn impressionable people . . . into mindless consumers," he writes, "then one very good way to start the process is to make microwaving the only available means of preparing food . . . It's another area of potential delight closed off forever. In its small way it symbolises the barbaric, rootless anti-civilisation we are turning into."

It certainly means the students will be living off pizza, chips, and frozen microwaved meals bought at vast expense from the supermarkets - where as many of them who can will be working, probably through lecture time, to try and begin to pay off the huge debt they are accumulating, and which will accumulate further from not learning to cook and feed themselves cheaply.

Last year, I worked for an environmental company. A girl who was getting all the right boxes ticked at university and who was on a placement with us was due to leave university in £30,000 of debt. She's due for a great career, so she may well be able to pay it off one day. But that's a massive multiple of what most people will be earning after they leave.

There are two heavy financial costs of university: tuition fees, and everything else. I'm going to rant about each of these separately.

A few years ago there was the news that prospective university students would be questioned about whether their parents went to university, giving preference to those whose parents did not. I now feel bad for any future children I have, since I went and a lot of it was a waste of time. Children are punished enough for their parents as it is: those who have a poor relationship with them are more vulnerable to pressure at school, since teachers can exploit their poor relationship by threatening to telephone them about bad behaviour. And by the time you're 18, university should be about you, not your parents.

I have a friend whose parents refused to pay the tuition fees or give my friend any financial support for university, as they had different career plans for their offspring in mind. This makes university an extention of boarding school. Few young people can fund such a thing for themselves. In fact, if their parents are well-off, they are more vulnerable, because they won't get any financial support if their parents won't stump up. The really sad thing about tuition fees is that they make university a private enterprise, and all about the market, rather than about learning. If the universities really need all that money all of a sudden, where did it come from before? Could it be that the government is depriving them in favour of the arms industry and going to war? In effect, that's just getting the citizens to pay for our wars - or whatever the government is funding.

If universities are suddenly overstretched, what is the reason for that? It certainly isn't that their professors are spending all their time teaching people, in my experience. I very rarely saw any professor face to face, and we didn't have tutorials, only lectures and practicals run by PhD students. I should have gone to the library more, but I hadn't a clue what to do in there. Books upon books upon books of incomprehensible papers. I hadn't the slightest idea how to read and digest a science paper - in fact, I still feel frustrated and confused when I try to read them. I hadn't the foggiest how to even find the right one, and nobody ever explained. I hadn't a clue what sort of thing I was supposed to read, how I should find out, what I should be looking for. For me, university was a case of: "Here, show me what you learnt at school, and we'll award your degree on that. If school left you totally unprepared, that's your problem." Only by listening to the arrogant private school graduates, who had been carefully tutored and prepared, did I find out a little of what on earth I was supposed to be doing - too late for my dissertation. By the time I actually had some inkling of what research actually is (as opposed to memorising, which I'd thought was what I was supposed to do), it was time to graduate.

That particular problem is only going to get worse. The hottest fashion accessory of my teaching course was "personalised learning". Oh, guess what - I just looked it up again to provide you with a link - there was reams of "personalised learning" stuff written on the Every Child Matters agenda in 2007 and 2008. No surprise: it has now gone out of fashion and the page has been taken down.

Anyway, "personalised learning" was the catchphrase of the year, the must-have accessory that the fashion police would pounce on you for failing to buy. (Whether you genuinely believed in the children as individuals or not, of course, was completely irrelevant.) It consisted of, rather than teaching several small points in a lesson, taking an entire hour to teach one small point in several different ways. The well-meaning intention was to cater for every learning style. The cumulative effect is, I suspect, trying to learn to ride a bicycle by not being allowed to pedal more than once a minute, or go more than six inches at a time - so you'd lose your balance and fall off. (Put a super-easy piano piece in front of me and I just can't play it! Put something complex enough to have a rhythm or a tune that makes sense, however, and I can get the pattern and give it a go.) It also meant that no child should be expected to read, write or listen. Some haven't got "the skills" to do that, and therefore nobody should be set a target that wasn't "SMART" - I forget what most of that stands for, but the "A" was for "achievable". Therefore, it was quite all right to teach people solely with playdough.

This was told to us as student teachers by an "advanced skills teacher". We were shocked. Wasn't it far crueller not to bother to teach a child to read just because they find it difficult? What about the rest of their life? What about university - you can't hand in a dissertation made of playdough! Such a suggestion made no sense to this teacher whatsoever. We might have been talking about preparing the kids to meet aliens. It was completely absurd. She looked at us with bigger and bigger eyes and said in a bewildered, but correcting voice: "Well, universities will just have to adapt." To playdough? Professors? Look, just move the professors and PhD students to another institution where they can do some real research, and equip universities with nursery school staff. That will solve everything.

Oh, except . . . no students. Sorry. Young people in this country are too stupid to be real students nowadays. But never mind - they do the best in Europe in their examinations!

Back to financial gripes. The option that is no longer open to students is, once they're at university, to live cheaply. That means find a cheap room to rent, and learn to cook. You can eat healthily and very cheaply with an old-fashioned marketplace, a few saucepans, and an oven and gas ring. You can also have your mates round for a meal, which those polystyrene microwave boxes aren't big enough to supply.

One thing that seems to have been outlawed is cheap accommodation. I shared a kitchen and bathroom with about 11 other people, and I loved it. We actually had a washing up rota that lasted pretty well for most of a year, and we soon learnt when we needed to get up in time to get a shower in the morning (that was easy for me - there was only one other science student on my corridor who needed to get to anything at 9am. The arts students only had about 4 hours of lectures a week. Their £3000/year-paying counterparts today will be paying £18.75 per lecture!) It encouraged us to cook for each other, to accept each other, to chat, to compromise, and to share.

But we were a minority. Those who lived in the swankier halls were appalled at the idea of sharing a bathroom with someone else. You had to swipe your card to get in, and then to get into their little collection of rooms plus kitchen. It felt very Orwellian, though I suppose it cut down on the people stealing milk. (Milk thieves are an age-old problem. My parents witnessed and experimented with such measures as: putting blue dye in it, putting a bicycle chain around it, and leaving a note saying "You do not know how I suffer when you steal my milk. Please keep off your hands!" I stuffed mine in plastic bags or behind my vegetables. Thieves are lazy and don't eat greens.) Not only did they develop suspicion and phobia of other people, they'd also still be in overdraft after each installment of their loan.

[This is my old hall of residence, Waveney Terrace, where endless fun and madness occurred. I will never ever forgive its demolition! Credit: This Flickr site, the picture donated by Natalie Usher. Its replacement is another swanky, debt-inducing, people-phobic nursery.]

To be in serious overdraft means you're desperate for any job going. You can't afford to be choosy, to strike if there's a problem, or to refuse to work very long hours. You depend on the clemency of the bankers to support you, and you live in fear of your home being taken away. You're also far too tired and busy working to do anything like criticise the government. Pinching paperclips and playing Solitaire become thrilling rebellion. Worry eats at you all the time, demands get too much - until dishonesty and corner-cutting become a necessary break, rather than lowdown, shameful behaviour.

I don't suggest that this is a concious motive of most of those who wish students to pay huge tuition fees and get pampered and spoiled rather than learn to live economically. But I bet they wouldn't object if it was pointed out to them. Because it means this country's citizens are learning, above all, dependence. More dependence means more consumerism, as John Wyndham pointed out in his thought-provoking short story "Consider her Ways". It also means obedience and gullibility. Very convenient while the oil still flows from the Middle East and unfortunate places like the Niger Delta. It won't be so convenient in the long run.


Anonymous said...

Henry our youngest came out of University with only 4000 of Student loan (and more than that in the Bank). For the last 3 years he did rent a cheap room in a house and learnt to cook. Then he was partially supported by one of his Grandparents and is happily to live frugally.

Waveney was lovely, it was ordinary, it had life, the roof didn't leak (unlike some of the other residences), yes the Kitchens were shared, so what. In my first year someone I knew was fed up with having his milk pinched, just put a label on the fridge saying that one of the bottles had a laxitive in it. Some didn't believe it until the thief found it...

Alice said...

Hahahahaha love the laxative story Waveney!!!!!

I prefer sharing when it comes to kitchens and bathrooms. It's more lifelike and it makes you share and trust and behave.

Delighted about your youngest; I don't refer to "all students", but the culture of a modern campus - and those unlucky with where they live, in an expensive town for example. Those who know how to live sensibly will be tomorrow's survivors. (Now I must learn to like gardening . . .)

Anonymous said...

Greetings Alice,

An obvious question arises. Who is at fault for the situation you describe? The students themselves for abandoning traditional scholarly pursuits? The university faculties or administrations for channeling the students? Or perhaps the whole of society with its possible greater focus on matters monetary?

Best regards,

Alice said...

Hi EigenState,

Sorry, I guess it's less obvious outside the UK. Our own Labour (furthest-left, or supposed to be) government decided to scrap proper funding for universities and introduce tuition fees instead, and then raise them several times. But I believe the universities themselves are at fault for building only ridiculously expensive accommodation. And school and parents and society have let kids down by not teaching them to cook, but just spoiling them and encouraging them to expect pampering instead.

My international friends told me, "It's a running joke, you feel broke whenever you're in England". My American friends, despite the HUGE fees of their colleges, claimed that their families were never in debt the way British families are as a matter of course. I don't know whether that was true. But I don't think a lifetime of debt should be the expected thing.

Anonymous said...

Greetings Alice,

Perhaps you are missing a deeper, more wide-spread problem.

Best regards,

Alice said...

Well, please point it out if I'm not smart enough :P ;) I take it you mean the move to marketing everything generally and forgetting what else is important? Bleak joyless utilitarianism etc. One deep problem will have many symptoms.

Anonymous said...

Greetings Alice,

No one, least of all I, said you lack the intellect. I know better than that!

What I am suggesting is that you think very hard about this. There are many questions to ask if one is to understand the fundamentals. You mention high tuition fees but did not discuss what fraction of the overall university operating budget those tuition fees represent even if restricted to the costs of undergraduate instruction.

What are the fundamental objectives of a university educational system? Surely it goes beyond helping students learn to cook for themselves.

Are the problems that you mentioned local to the UK or are they more global in nature?

Those are just a few of the obvious questions. Good answers are not easily found I grant you. But they do need to be found and they do need to be discussed in a civilized debate.

I am merely here doing what I do--trying to prod in what I hope is the right direction. Trying to elevate a lament to something more profound. And naturally trying hard to remember not to erase the blackboard with my necktie.

As always, very best regards,

PS. I miss email notifications!

Alice said...

Greetings ES! I am enjoying this conversation - anyone else care to join in?

Well, I do ask why there is a very sudden change in the financial system of university. I don't know much about their finances overall, but one professor (at teacher training college) was dismissive of tuition fees. She said, "We always got by without them. We don't need them."

I don't personally have the answers to everything, so I try to avoid generalising or pretending I do in the name of being profound. I do notice a nasty swing towards the market, and just because I'm young and ignorant doesn't mean I can't point that much out. I can imagine that if all my blog posts were profound and contained All the Answers, they'd get pretty fed up. Although I reckon you should start a blog yourself - I'd love to read it!

Of course the point of university is more than learning to cook. As I stated, and as the article states, that is a nice little picture - one little symptom of a larger thing: independence to spoiled dependence. The article states that it used to be because you wanted to go, not for a career move. I went because I wanted to do a degree - because I really wanted to learn. I was rather surprised when someone wrote to the Independent complaining about the new law asking students whether parents went to university or not, and gave several variations of the reason "career move" (more money, more qualifications, etc) as the point of university. It is to practice independence, to learn more than we'd have expected, to learn how to research and build upon ourselves, to broaden your horizons, to mix with other cultures - to become new people. If it helps you get a great job, there is - as another Independent reader wisely wrote many years ago - an amazing solution to the money part: income tax.

Anonymous said...

Greetings Alice,

University is also to hone one's thinking. That to me is the principal objective. It goes hand in hand with the greater exposure to a broader world of people, cultures, and ideas.

I never cared what my students became--assuming it was something of potential merit in some manner. Thus my responsibility to them was to help them learn to think objectively and independently. Skills they can utilize whatever they might chose to pursue. To accomplish that, I push and prod, never accepting existing intellectual limitations. Surely you know that by now. I will stand by that philosophy until my dying day and beyond.

Blog? Me? Not my style.

Very best regards,

PS. I seem to remember reading once long ago that tuition covered approximately 50% of the actual instructional costs of each student. And you would probably be amazed at the cost of maintaining academic buildings!

PPS. Read the Pelikan book!