John Walsh: Is university going to be worth it?

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The Coalition is going degree-tastic. They're expanding the number of university places available to students with fewer than three As at A-level; they're going to allow universities which charge less than £7,500 per annum to attract more students – up to 20,000 more. Not only that. Students, according to this week's Government White Paper, will soon be giddy with empowerment. New measures will "allow" them to rate their lecturers as part of a students' charter or review; and "allow" them to complain about their courses.

Shall we see student power having a real say in whether their courses are satisfactory, their lecturers law-abiding, sober and helpful, and their economics course sufficiently respectful of K Marx? I doubt it. You can imagine what'll happen to the "charter" that results from students' complaints; the complaints will be carefully re-cast as interesting suggestions and incorporated into a senior-common-room review of teaching across the disciplines.

Much more likely is this scenario: students will bypass the university's benign paternalistic attentions, and start telling each other: it ain't worth it. Through my children, I know a lot of first-year students – all at institutions that intend to charge £9,000 a year – whose conversations, at the end of the academic year, haven't been about drink, sex or 4am essay crises; they've been about the cost-effectiveness of their studies.

"My course offers nine lectures and seminars a week," said one. "That's less than two a day. And they never tell you what the seminar subject is, so you never know what to read." "History undergrads at my place do 30 essays across three terms," said another, "That's one a week. I've been set four all year. Frankly, I've been bored to death." "In the first term, they gave us a two-hour workshop on how to use the internet," said a third. "We all know how to use the flipping internet." And all their deliberations, after an hour of comparing notes, came down to a chorus: "It isn't worth £9,000 a year." The teaching was worth "about £500". The intellectual stimulation and on-campus convivium was worth about £1,000 a year...

The financial computation went on and on – hardly surprising, because it's the students who'll be responsible for repaying the "loan". And when you imagine these fee-based gripes extending beyond a gathering of south-London students, and spreading across the social networks on Facebook and Twitter ("Don't apply to Course X at Y University – waste of money") I fear we'll see a high rate of attrition.

David Willetts, universities minister, said he "doubted whether any institutions would have to fold as a result of his measures". He must be dreaming. Allowing universities to charge maximum fees, then encouraging others to undercut them, is a spectacular example of shooting oneself in the polished, academic foot.

If the greats of literature had to sell their ideas ...

As the publishing industry squawks and flaps and runs around the farmyard wondering what will happen next in the digital revolution, there's much talk about "a new economic model" being needed in the business of getting writers' effusions into the hands of readers. One of the neatest is the brainchild of John Mitchinson, who has interrupted his work on the QI gravy train to invent Unbound, a new "online group-buying site".

It works this way. Instead of an author approaching an agent or publisher with an idea for a book and three sample chapters, the author prepares a pitch for a book that he or she hasn't yet started writing, and uploads it to the Unbound website. Online readers can inspect the pitch and decide whether or not to back it, starting at £10 a head. When enough of them have pledged support, hey presto, the book gets written.

Simple, huh? But how would classic works of the past have fared if their prospective readers had had only a brief pitch to judge them on? "Um, it's about a chap very like me, who remembers lots of stuff about his past after dipping a fairy cake in some tea. I'm planning about 3,000 pages..."; "Well, it's an allegorical epic poem in three parts about my encounters with people in Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, drawing on medieval Christian theology and Thomist philosophy..."; "It charts a day in the life of a Jewish ad salesman in Dublin who's worried that his wife will have it off with someone else around 4pm, and he meets a student teacher in a maternity clinic and – well, that's about it, really."

Wigging out in a wimple is just not possible

The behaviour of fans at rock concerts has become as formulaic as ballet positions, though not as elegant. Some favour the right-arm-outstretched-to-the-stage tribute that accompanies a cry of "Yeeeaaahh!" Others prefer the both-arms-above-the-head-as-though-fighting-off-attack-of-killer-bees look. Younger elements in the crowd tend to adopt a both-arms-out, palms-extended, calm-down-dear gesture, as though trying to placate an enormous assailant.

The weather, however, has made a mockery of all this. The dignity of rock fans across the nation is being severely compromised by the incessant rain. When I went to see The Killers and Kaiser Chiefs in Hyde Park last week, the heavens opened and stewards helpfully dished out lightweight transparent cagoules to the crowd. They fit tightly around the shoulders and your head pokes up through a hole to fit inside a sort of polythene wimple.

Yes, it keeps you more-or-less dry – but just try adopting any of the characterful poses of the modern rocker when you're wrapped tightly inside a plastic condom. Pointing at the stage becomes a pathetic single-finger gesture at the level of your trouser pocket. Playing air guitar is impossible unless you stick to the ninth and tenth frets. Attempting enthusiastic hand gestures makes you look like a penguin agitating his flippers. It's demeaning, that's what it is.



j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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