What’s wrong with our universities

Talk to any of my middle-aged generation about their experiences of recent graduates and the stories are uniformly depressing ones of ignorance. Like the young woman I know, an English graduate from a “good” university who loved Shakespeare but had never seen Shakespeare performed; or the medic who didn’t know what “occult” meant. Not just ignorance, but no interest in finding out more: like the young woman I once interviewed for a first job, who had “been travelling”.

Me: “On your travels, which country did you find most interesting?”

Her: “Fiji”

Me: “What was interesting about it?”

Her: “I really liked the culture and the people”

Me: “How did the different communities seem to be getting along?”

Her: “What different communities?”

Er, well, the  native Fijian and the Indian communities. The communities whose conflicting interests have constantly challenged Fiji’s democracy since independence, which ten minutes’ reading of the Lonely Planet guide on the plane would have told you about.

No, it wasn’t a relevant question for the job. But the sort of basic curiosity that would have led her to find out about the country she was staying in is pretty essential for any job, and if universities have anything to do, surely it is to stimulate in their students this instinct to find out more. But it seems to me that if anything their teaching is designed to suppress it instead.

But I’m only just getting started. With a very few exceptions, British universities are a national disgrace. Jelly-tot education for jelly-brains. In most disciplines, with a few honourable exceptions (mostly the hard science courses in the good universities), the workload is laughable. Students go out drinking every night, in subsidised bars, spend their days lying in middens watching midden TV, get half  the year off, and still get good grades: so when, at the end of their three years, they get a job, the shock is palpable. Yes, I know you only ever worked a full eight hours in the two weeks before finals. Yes, from now on you do it every day. Five days a week for the rest of your life. Yes, you must wear a suit.  No, you don’t get three months off in the summer.  Christmas?  You work on Christmas Eve. And between Christmas and New Year.   Just imagine if students actually worked as hard as people who do jobs.

Undergraduate courses in the humanities and the social sciences are nowhere near demanding enough. Universities have no incentive to make them demanding: dropouts and failures lose them money. And, frankly, at 18, most young people aren’t that bothered about studying. I was certainly more interested in getting drunk (at which I succeeded) and getting laid (yup, failed on that one)  than in physics – which was why I switched courses to an easier one at the end of my first year. Even then, we knew which courses were easier – so why didn’t the universities try to get tough? See above. Even Oxbridge needs to offer easy courses for potential Blues.

British universities do one thing well for their undergraduates. Being mostly residential, they are sheltered half-way houses for middle-class children moving out of the family home. That’s an important, if under-rated function. But it’s a ludicrously expensive way to provide it, and it’s something that all young adults need, not just the posh kids.

So no, I don’t take the universities’ special pleading  very seriously; and I take the moaning from the NUS even less seriously.  Here’s what I think we should do. First off, let’s stop thinking of them as just a continuation of school after A-levels.  At 18, young people should be out getting drunk and getting laid and finding out about the world and work.  Cleaning offices, portering in hospitals, scrubbing pots in hotel kitchens, picking cabbages from the fields, meeting people from different backgrounds, becoming independent and discovering what actual hard work is.  So some sort of “life experience” beyond school or sheltered gap-year ought to be a requirement for every undergraduate course. Then, most of them should be part-time, and students should pay their own fees. At the time, out of the money they earn while working the rest of the time.

For the hard sciences – including medicine – it would need to be slightly different, because there is so much to learn. Certainly keep the life-experience requirement, but have a sponsored scholarship system for these courses – paid for by healthcare providers and other future employers.  A lot of the hard science career path is in research and academia, so the research councils should award the relevant scholarships.

There is another side benefit of this plan. Since the coalition intends to put a cap on immigration from outside the EU, we may well run into labour shortages. Apparently the Lithuanians have had enough of pulling our cabbages, and the Filipinos can’t get visas.


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