The season of mists and frantic fruitfulness

"They will be trained to be good employees - but will they actually be "educated"?
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The Independent Online

As the season of mists descends once again over the campuses throughout the country, the bright-eyed and quick-minded, who have survived the education system so far, are queuing up to register at their faculties, sort out accommodation and open their bank accounts.

As the season of mists descends once again over the campuses throughout the country, the bright-eyed and quick-minded, who have survived the education system so far, are queuing up to register at their faculties, sort out accommodation and open their bank accounts.

Since I was in their position, a sobering 30 years ago, such a time and such sights obviously now goad me into nostalgia. But they also prompt the question : "How different are the current crop from us of the Seventies?" At that time, of course, there were no loans, you were a highly privileged and fortunate minority - 5 per cent of the population who were able to benefit from the university experience without a worry that it would eventually have to be all paid back in the future.

For many of us from modest backgrounds, our parents had not needed to contribute anything at all. We were therefore completely unencumbered by guilt from family, or eventual responsibility back to the State.

But, perhaps, the biggest difference of all was that the concept of the audit was unknown. We had not gone to schools beleaguered by Ofsted where our teachers worked themselves into a frazzle trying to comply with the bureaucratic demands of a central government setting standardised standards.

We had been taught by often charismatic and inspiring teachers, who frequently went "off piste" from the curriculum and actually gave us their own original insights, according to the needs and abilities of their pupils.

Nor were we in the habit, as many of today's students, of looking forward to filling out feedback forms, or to have an outsider sitting in on our teaching to ensure that standards and, indeed, homogeneity of a sort, was being sustained.

Perhaps in allocating funds, for a society where more people benefit from higher education, these checks and balances are necessary. Of course, the old system was in support of a highly favoured minority and I am not trying to defend it as it stood; but the basic issue is that our mind set was not influenced by any consideration other than the pursuit of knowledge for whatever ends. And when we went "up" we certainly weren't confronted therefore with the concept of stress. The students coming nowadays will, I'm sure, be offered a whole range of potential counselling services if the going gets rough. Why should university life not be wonderful?

However, if you are competing with others in a job-orientated society, then perhaps there would be more case for being stressed out, working yourself into the ground and, as a result, engaging in Neanderthal boozing late into the night at the student bar.

And say you have the tunnel vision to succeed at all costs, because so much is expected of you, and you are being measured up against such objective standards, then of course there won't be any time to discuss the ills of the world, to take an interest in politics, and even less chance to sit around listening to music, discussing poetry and attending lectures in other disciplines: all of which were common in the Seventies.

I am worried now that university education is used very much as some kind of commodity that can be assessed, standardised and quantified: it is traded as man- and woman-hours for loans, which eventually can be relayed on to the job market. Students today will have had the concept of performance markers drummed into them. They will be set fair, most of them, for a course that will train them to be good employees - but will they actually be "educated"?

In all the standardisation, both valid and/or bureaucratic, that has ensued in the last few decades, have we thrown the baby of intellectual curiosity and fun out with the bath water of the sink-or-swim system? I fervently hope that this latest batch of students, geared up as they are to succeed in the job market, do not lose sight of the fact that they are at university also to develop as individuals.

The writer is Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University and Director of the Royal Institution

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