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A degree of quality

As someone who graduated in the Seventies I cannot help but feel that a degree course of the Nineties is very different.

When I was an undergraduate, the tutors on my course were able to take an individual interest in me and each of my student colleagues as they had more time and we were fewer in numbers. There were the lectures attended en masse, but most of the teaching was by specialist tutors in small groups.

Our tutors were also cutting-edge research scientists, who were passionate about their subject and proud of the courses they designed, often drawing on their own research for examples. Many confined their teaching to their own specialities. We were honoured to be taught by these scientists in a department that continues its Nobel prize-winning tradition. Teaching may have been a chore to these high-flying academics, but they were there to coach us in our individual weaknesses. My first-class honours degree was a tribute to their teaching and individual nurturing and its quality was beyond question.

Dr Anna M Coyle

Sunbury-on-Thames, Middx

No small potatoes

With reference to the article by Lucy Hodges (Higher value, Education+ 21 August), undoubtedly, requiring students to pay tuition fees will affect their behaviour in various ways, but do we have to swallow the "marketplace model" in such a simplistic way?

To what extent is higher education a product, with academic staff the purveyors and students the customers, and to what extent are these metaphors misapplied to an activity which is valid in its own right?

Whether or not they pay fees, students have the right to be treated professionally by professionals. If the educational experience (which is more than "teaching") they receive falls below professional standards, then they are entitled to redress.

However, there is a big difference between getting a degree and buying a sack of potatoes.

First, you are not buying a degree. You are paying (in part) for access to facilities and an exposure to education followed by an impartial assessment.

Second, the interaction required between the student and the university course is quite different in kind from the interaction between the customer and the potatoes. If a student of adequate ability and diligence fails to understand the course, then they are justified in complaining. However, no lecturer can guarantee that every student will understand every aspect of every course; nor can they guarantee that studying will be easy.

Third, reaching degree level requires changes in attitudes and intellectual standards which can be very painful. Given a choice between struggling with demanding lectures and original sources, and receiving hand-outs containing potted summaries of lectures or textbooks, many students will be tempted to press for the latter. The temptation to then press for assessment systems which reward rehashes of those hand-outs is all the greater. Such students might see this as getting "value for money". I would not regard this as any sort of value at all. I doubt whether employers will be very impressed by it either.

Education is like a sack of potatoes only in the most trivial sense. Education and business are different activities each of which is valid and neither of which should be ashamed of its special characteristics.

Being a student is something very special. Reducing the status of student to that of "customer" is not only a mistake but also a deception. The initial victims may well be the overworked staff of universities, but ultimately they will be the students themselves.

PK Burgess

President, Association of University Teachers

First earn, then learn

I am an A-level student. I start a university degree course next year. I have chosen to take a year out in order to earn money to help pay for this because the Government thinks my generation is well-off enough to afford not only the expense, but also the tuition fees of higher education. I have estimated that I will leave university with a debt of at least pounds 6,000, and the fact that money worries will be at the forefront of my mind throughout my degree may well affect my final result.

The Government raves about educating its children but is actually making it impossibly expensive.

I am lucky. I have loving, supporting parents who have been preparing for the expenses of my degree course and are prepared to help me along the way, but I have at least one friend who is considering not going to university simply because her parents may not be able to support her.

My sympathies are with my 16-year-old brother who will be doing the same thing in two years' time. I have advised him to start saving now. He needs a job. He will be studying for A-levels, but he'll be looking for a job as well.

Mr Blair and his colleagues should beware - they will be pensioners when my generation is running this country. We won't forget!

Vickey Allen

Denmead, Hants

At the school of life

Ann Mackintosh asks (apropos of young prodigies), what child wakes up in the morning and says, "Hey, I'd like to study statistics/mechanics/applied maths"? (Education+, 28 August).

I did. I joined Mensa when I was 13 and I wanted to spend all day, every day, doing what I enjoyed: academic study.

Instead, I had the misfortune to attend a fifth-rate boarding school - among boys whom I regarded as sub-human scum - and received a wholly inappropriate lack of education.

I cannot remember ever being spoken to in a decent, civil way by any teacher.

I have been in and out of borstal and prison and addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Lucky Ruth Lawrence who had a dad who could give her what she needed. I wish he'd been my dad.

Michael Zehse