Jayne Dowle: Approach university life with a degree of caution

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IT’S that time of year again. Stress, worry, anxiety and all-night revision marathons. If you have a student son or daughter, you will be all too familiar with what I’m saying. Now is the hour of reckoning. All those lost weekends spent partying or rock-climbing or running through the streets dressed as a chicken for the Rag Society tell their toll. It’s exam season.

It’s worrying then that a fifth of students say that they are badly taught. They complain about lecturers who “make it up as they go along”, a lack of access to teaching staff, inadequate feedback on assignments and a whole list of issues which will send a chill through anyone who has ever worked in higher education. This new survey is not going to make parents happy either.

If you’re shelling out up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees alone for your offspring, you can be forgiven for asking about the point and purpose of university. And if you’re a twenty-something facing a future carrying around your student debt until you’re almost ready to retire, you’re going to be asking the same thing.

Recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the typical student will graduate with debts of £44,035 and won’t pay them off until their fifties. Just what should a university degree deliver? It’s harder to answer than any exam question.

Before we deal with that, we have to address a fundamental truth. We have a crisis of expectation in higher education, and I’m putting the blame straight at the door of Tony Blair.

Before the 1997 General Election, when he made his manifesto pledge to see 50 per cent of young people enter further study on leaving school, his aim was laudable. Widen participation. Raise aspiration and encourage clever youngsters from modest backgrounds to aim high.

What he never calculated, though, was how this was to be paid for. And what he never factored in, because he was a politician dealing with the big picture, was how that education was going to be designed. Or how young people were going to approach the concept known as “studying at university”.

This was just one survey, carried out by students, for students. However, what this chronicle of dissatisfaction proves is that his gamble was over-ambitious.

What we have to do now, as parents, educators and taxpayers, is to try and find a way to make a university education relevant and sustainable.

For a start, I’d say, cut down the number of spurious courses. Focus on those which promote knowledge and understanding of a specific subject. Expand the mind, foster independence of thought, encourage curiosity and creativity, yet never forget that ultimately, there has to be a point to it all. And that is to enter adulthood prepared for the world of work.

Instead of focussing on what lecturers do “wrong”, we should look at what they do right, often in very trying circumstances.

The sheer explosion of student numbers has seen teaching staff come under enormous pressure. Students complain that they don’t get enough “one-on-one” time with their tutors.

To that I would say that there are only so many waking hours in the week. And ask any dedicated university professional how many unpaid hours they put in dealing with email queries and paperwork long after students have left for the Union bar.

When I taught at a university, I was told by a senior colleague that I was expected to answer emails from students every night so that we could deliver the service they expected.

The service they expected. That says it all to me. Too often, students regard a degree as yet another commodity they are paying for. That’s the side effect of tuition fees; the concept of “value for money”.

I’m not saying that there aren’t young people who work hard and complete assignments and study for those exams. I’ve met them, and they are a pleasure and an honour to teach.

Yet, far too many undergraduates just expect to be given a degree simply because they (or their parents) are handing over the cash.

To any young person contemplating a degree, I’d say be honest. What do you want a degree for? To get a better job? In that case, what do you mean by “better”? Is it the kind of job which is going to pay you a salary so good that it will offset all those thousands of pounds you’re going to accrue in debt? And are you really cut out for study? Are you prepared to stand on your own two feet, accept that the world is not run according to your rules and take responsibility for your own learning?

If you’re not, then think twice and remember this. The cost of a university education should not only be measured in pounds. It should also be measured in how much effort, dedication and sacrifice you are prepared to put in.

Twitter @JayneDowle