Jayne Dowle: Varsity rankings largely academic in the real world

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IT’S making the headlines but it’s still got to make it to my Facebook page. British universities are slipping down the world rankings in the face of stiff competition from the Far East. Three of our higher education institutions, Reading, Dundee and Newcastle, have dropped out of the world’s 200 top-performing universities. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings point to a “worrying evidence of decline”.

It is the kind of thing that sets university vice-chancellors into a tailspin. They are obsessed with rankings and positions. Being up there in the world order means a lot to them; a good position attracts more students and funding and brings kudos to an institution.

I know from the years I spent as a university lecturer that obsession with being “world class” can override everything else. It’s more about research and results and reputation than anything else. It’s not really about the student experience or their satisfaction with the day-to-day teaching they receive. It’s about statistics, sure, but really it’s about what one bunch of clever academic people think about another bunch of clever academic people. These latest figures make me ponder, not for the first time, what university is actually for.

If the steady stream of proud/anxious parents on my Facebook page is anything to go by, we’re still more than a little confused. Many of my friends didn’t go to university themselves, and are waving off their teenagers without a real clue about where they are going. I am sure that the very last thing on their mind is where exactly in the world rankings their destination sits. They are worried about how their offspring will cope without them, which train they need to catch to come home and whether they will talk differently by Christmas.

I’ve resisted the urge to post a public reassurance. Until now. When I went away all those years ago, I was the first person to go to university in my family. My father was convinced I’d end up on drugs, but my mother, confident that she had brought me up to be a fairly responsible 18-year-old, just opened the window and let me fly.

Now I have an interesting perspective on the matter; from a first-generation student, and from a former lecturer. Most important of all is the fact that university is an experience. The chance to study a subject you like, and most likely live away from home whilst you do it, should be grabbed with both hands.

As a lecturer, I’ve watched young people metamorphose from scared teenagers into confident young adults before my eyes. However, this comes with a caveat. University should not be regarded as an extension of school. It should not be a place where classes are regarded as “lessons”, where academics are “teachers” and where mum and dad are brought in to fight your battles for you. It should, above all, be a place where you learn to stand on your own two feet.

There really is no point spending all those thousands of pounds and all those hours in lectures if you are still going to take your washing home to your mother every weekend. And, although this particular piece of advice is aimed squarely at students, it should also stand for parents too. I know you’re worrying about your son or daughter being able to cope, but if you don’t let them try, they will never learn.

I’ve heard of one mother who does a weekly internet shop for her student son, arranges the delivery and pays for it. Another who gets up at 6am on a Saturday to drive from Barnsley to Leeds in order to ferry her post-graduate daughter to her part-time job. If you catch me doing anything like this when my two fly the nest, you have permission to shoot me. We all care for our children, but honestly, they won’t thank you for it when they haven’t got a clue how to book their own train ticket home.

Ah, the real world. The place where we all end up in the end. I’ve spoken to so many anxious parents at university open days and what they most want to know is – will my son or daughter get a job when they leave? There is, of course, no guarantee of this. Just as there is no magic formula that confidently predicts what class of degree they will get based on a handful of A-levels and a nicely written personal statement.

Whatever you study, you have to remember that university is all about independent learning. It’s not about the “teacher” telling you what to do, it’s about you going off to find out how to do it yourself. It’s not about doing the bare minimum in class and dossing around doing nothing very much for rest of the time. It’s about thinking about what kind of person you want to become and seeking out opportunities which will help you to achieve your aim.

Never mind world rankings – university should be all about getting ready for the real world. And this advice, needless to say, applies both to students and to parents.

Jayne Dowle