Education, education, education: but not for the sake of it

By Jeevan Farthing

With rising student numbers and the ongoing commercialisation of higher education is it still serving its original purpose?

Encapsulating the philosophy of a Conservative government is the belief that university represents a marketplace of ideas, and functions as a market economy. Neither seem successfully apparent today. A university which has to accommodate freshers in a different city from where they are studying more strongly resembles market failure than a system satisfied by the laws of supply and demand alone. Recent suggestions by university bosses that tuition fees must be raised to £24,000 per year – while the government already caps existing fees below inflation – suggests a funding model unfit for purpose. And despite some perceptions to the contrary, the number of UK graduate jobs outnumbered the number of graduates by 1 million in 2020. In a damning verdict, New Statesman journalist Harry Lambert claimed in 2019 that the “British degree has lost all value”. But does this depressing state of affairs translate into a sub-par student experience while at university? 

Social opportunities aside, it is worth questioning whether a degree nowadays academically engages students to the extent that they are excited by their discipline. It seems almost wistful to imagine a university system which produces the next generation of ‘thinkers’ – instead, most of us will assimilate an ever-mediocre conglomerate of graduates, among whom an ever-higher proportion receive top grades. The merits and pitfalls of grade inflation are a discussion for another time, but the feeling of an increasing homogeneity in the university experience persists in three key ways.

The first is the advent of online learning. Despite the elimination of almost all government-mandated coronavirus restrictions, a sizeable number of my lectures next year will be held online. Whether this is because the number of students outstrips the supply of available classrooms, or that the university has found online learning to be genuinely more effective in these circumstances, is not for me to speculate. The extent to which one can engage with their subject is nonetheless affected. 

There runs one argument that on-demand learning encourages students to actually reflect on what the lecturer is saying, enhancing one’s research rather than one’s dictation skills. But there is an equally convincing counterpoint which one of my tutors made – that online classes encourage lecturers to create perfectly crafted diction alone. This, by default, discourages the art of teaching, and what separates the latter from the former is the requirement of human connection and mutual understanding. Indeed, on The Political Party podcast, Anneliese Dodds MP once recalled a person in the front row of a lecture theatre exactly imitating all of her arm movements as she was speaking. While I am not quite encouraging such bizarre behaviour, it is an example of the real life experiences which Microsoft Echo simply cannot replicate. No one in-person lecture will be the same, and while some may insist on the benefits of precise standardisation, it is neither exciting nor engaging. Maya Angelou once famously said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”, and I am so far unconvinced that an on-demand sociology lecture will make students feel more enthused by sociology than an in-person equivalent.

The second barrier to engagement is that classes are simply too big. Part of the reason why Oxford and Cambridge graduates dominate the upper echelons of most professions is the unacceptable abundance of nepotism, but another is that the small-group teaching practised in these institutions prompts the student to think or write in a way not all universities can compete with. This is not because other universities are lacking devoted and talented professors who are eager to engage with their students, but because their workforces are too overburdened. Without offering staff at all universities the pay and conditions necessary to do their job properly, and without universities receiving adequate funds to expand by government, every discipline will become even more exclusive to those attending institutions which already favour those with greater privilege. 

Finally, the university experience feels increasingly oriented towards the completion of exams and exams only. This is not always the best indication of talent. For example, at school I thrived at science because I was good at categorising and memorising the phraseology of Edexcel mark schemes, rather than having an innate flair for the subject. And yet university has not fundamentally changed this approach. While I am eternally grateful for the feedback I receive on my politics work, it is largely on essay structure, an essential facet of communication for sure, but something I can only apply to my next University of Glasgow assignment, not my understanding of the subject at hand. It was therefore unsurprising to find one of my professors increasingly irate at the end of last year, as their Q&A on a law module was dominated by qualms over referencing. The professor didn’t care so much about referencing, they cared that we got the law right, but the cohort were nonetheless acclimatised to wanting to maximise their score out of 22, and they felt that a minor deviation from due process would inhibit this more than the misunderstanding of academic content. Is that a failure of secondary education to prepare young people for a transition to a more rounded approach to learning? Or is the end point of this transition a fallacy, as universities today represent a mere continuation of teaching to the test?

It would feel wrong to end this piece on a purely nihilistic note, because the incoming batch of freshers’ still have some amazing tutors and an enriching education to look forward to. While there is no clear indication that either Westminster or Holyrood are keen to initiate higher education reform, what makes the student experience of the Scottish university system somewhat less affected by marketisation and homogenisation is the degree structure; most courses allow you to change your core subject in the first two years. Discovering a discipline which leaves you genuinely engaged is less about ‘doing all the reading’ than finding what interests you outside university and applying it to an academic context. Your first and second year of living unshackled from the grip of irritating family members or small-town gossip will do leaps and bounds for you socially, but will also give you the space and time to listen to podcasts or read fiction about things you love, not for the sake of achieving a grade point average at the end of it, but for the sake of enjoyment alone. 

Learning for learning’s sake increasingly seems like a forgotten dream, but even as universities struggle to facilitate such an ethos when they are made to operate as a corporate enterprise, you can still become a better thinker in the classroom, even if this is best done by thinking more outside it.


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