Arts degrees: Too much time - and too little to do

Humanities undergraduates are wasting their university lives drinking in pubs and watching television, say critics. Has the time come to reform the arts degree? Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

Today's arts undergraduates spend a lot of their time drifting aimlessly, doing very little work, watching too much afternoon TV and sitting about in pubs. Moreover, nowadays they experience more anomie than students of old because academics don't know their names, the lectures are huge (and monumentally boring), the seminars are big and the teaching is not as good as they received at A-level. Recognise that picture?

It was painted last week by Polly Toynbee, the former Independent columnist now at The Guardian, who told a House of Commons seminar that it was not surprising the student drop-out rate was so high. Universities do little more than give you a badge of admittance, she says. "Once you have sifted pupils at 18 into the various ranks of institution, what added value do you get?"

As a university drop-out herself (she was at St Anne's College, Oxford), Toynbee believes that most degree courses could be completed in two years. "Three-year courses and all those vacations wondering about the meaning of life is a recipe for turning out university people who are in a worse state psychologically than when they did their A-levels," she said."Some people find it difficult to find their feet in real life because of the nature of university life."

It is not often that a higher education audience gets to hear the views of education consumers - she is the mother of four children who are either at university, have graduated or are shortly to embark on a degree. And if they do, they can usually dismiss them for being ignorant and confused. But her analysis is shared by many parents, particularly those with offspring studying degrees in the humanities. And the pressure on universities to introduce more structure to undergraduate life and the teaching of skills that will be useful in work is likely to increase with the advent of top-up fees.

Toynbee told the seminar organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute that the government missed a trick when it introduced top-up fees. At the same time as tackling student funding it should have looked at the way universities are run and at the experience of students in higher education. As it is, arts students are taught to write in "an appallingly turgid" style, she said. "You learn how to do footnotes and references. That is not a useful skill for how you will write things in the future." What is needed is for universities to devise more rounded courses containing a lot of culture and civilization and less specialisation. That would produce Renaissance men and women. It would be no bad thing, she said, if they learnt some things that the CBI approved of, such as how to read company accounts and compile a spreadsheet.

Her critique was politely received by the vice chancellors present. But how accurate is it? And is her solution - two-year degrees - the right one? Many parents of arts students would agree with her about the need for a broader and more carefully thought out curriculum. But would they really want degrees to be cut to two years? Certainly American observers of the British scene comment on how few assignments many students receive and how little work they can get away with. American students are more closely supervised at university. They cover a much broader range of material than their British counterparts, but they spend four years at it.

Darius Norell, managing director of Real World magazine, which is aimed at helping graduates into work, agreed with the thrust of her comments: "My experience of the last five or six years at Real World is that higher education is a pretty dismal experience," he said. "You come out of university not very well prepared for life."

The academics took a while to respond but eventually Professor Ivor Crewe, vice chancellor of Essex University, rose to their defence. He didn't recognise the picture being painted he said. "The market doesn't recognise it either. If it were the case that universities were as dismal as this, why do employers want to recruit graduates?"

Morever, when students are asked in surveys what they think of their university experience, they say they have had a good time. Some are depressed and dispirited but then so are some 18-year-olds in work, he said. Polly Toynbee painted a picture of certain kinds of arts students in certain institutions, specifically arts students who have only six to eight hours contact time with lecturers or tutors each week.

By contrast, science students are in the laboratory or the lecture theatre for 20 to 30 hours a week. "The reason that arts students have only six to eight hours with their academics each a week is that they're expected to spend the time reading the books that will make them the rounded characters that Polly Toynbee wants them to be. They can't be in class all the time if they are thinking and reading."

But Professor Crewe agreed that universities should be asking hard questions and that possibly they were not doing that as much as they could. Universities should always be asking how best to teach, he thought. "There is quite a lot of rigidity and inertia in the way universities do things but there is also quite a lot of innovation."

Professor Steve Smith, vice chancellor of Exeter University, went further. Almost every university he knew has an enormous emphasis on skills training for students, he said. They teach students how to make a presentation to a group of people, how to work in teams, and so on.

The undergraduate curriculum was also much wider than it used to be. "Universities are only too well aware that they have to turn out people who are well-rounded and equipped with the skills that employers need."

But the suggestion that degrees could easily be reduced from three to two years won little support. Students would not be able to fund themselves for a longer period of study in the year without extra money, pointed out Professor Crewe. They would need to receive more in the way of loans and maintenance grants because they would spend more of the year at university and would not be able to spend time in gainful employment, as they do now. Second, would two year degrees save the universities money? Probably not, because you would still need to employ as many academics and they would have to continue with their research. Third, Professor Crewe wondered whether Britain wanted to be a society which released young people on to the labour market at the age of 20. "They're still quite immature people," he said. "No other country does this."

But there was general agreement that Toynbee's criticism had some truth to it. Britain has not moved successfully from the small university system it used to have to a mass system, according to Professor Alan Smithers of the University of Buckingham. Thirty years ago, when a small percentage got a higher education, it was all right to teach students in small groups and expect them to do a lot of reading and essays. But in today's word, when lectures are very large and tutorial groups much bigger, students need more support.

"We have remained with a few lecturers, leaving students to their own devices. We still expect them to be reading the rest of the time but they are probably watching afternoon TV."

We have not thought through what higher education should look like in this country, he argues, and we could learn a lot from America about how to cater for a wide range of interests and abilities.


Alice Walters, 21, is a third year student of art history at Leeds University.

In the first year I didn't work very hard because it didn't count towards your degree. In that year you really do nothing. You watch afternoon and morning TV. The lecturers don't know your names because the lectures are so huge. But the lectures were never boring - they were quite interesting. In the second year you realize things begin to count, so you do some work and in the third year you know things are serious so you work all the time. I am learning stuff that will be useful in life like how to plan my time. I want to go into the art world, so my degree is directly relevant.

Emma Prest, 21, is in the third year of a degree in politics and geography at Edinburgh University.

I agree that you don't have enough to do in your first two years. In fact, it was ridiculous. What you did in those years didn't count towards your degree. I watched a lot of TV and visited a lot of pubs. But now, in my third year, there's a significant increase in the workload. In fact I find it difficult to fit in around my commitments as president of Amnesty here. I agree that the way you are taught to write is horrendous. You are not allowed to pose rhetorical questions.

Bosco Tench, 21, is a third year student in film and politics at the University of the West of England.

There is a tendency to watch afternoon TV. I start very early in the morning and get a few afternoons off. So, if I'm tired, I sit in front of TV. It's got nothing to do with my course; it's just me being lazy. My teachers are great and the lectures are not too big. The politics will be useful in later life because I am learning how things work. And I don't mind having to produce footnotes and bibliography. They show a) that you are not cheating and b) that you have done the research.