To read last week's news stories about the increasing number of students given to boycotting university lectures was to be shot back nearly a third of century in time to a dust-ridden lecture room in Brasenose College, Oxford, and the dry, monotone voice of a certain, well, let us call him Dr Drone. This gentleman was then in the latter stages of an illustrious career as one of the world's leading authorities on Italian history of the 15th and 16th centuries, but he could not hold his listeners' attention. The audience soon dwindled to exactly two people: myself and a friend called Steve Gunn. In the end, I gave up and slunk away, so that only Steve remained to attend to Dr Drone's bi-weekly performances, which doubtless explains why he is now a distinguished historian of the early modern era and I am not.
Three decades and a bit later, the kind of dissatisfaction engendered by the sound of Dr Drone gravely explaining how wheat production was coming on outside Padua in 1520 turns out to have undergone the quantifying process that is so characteristic of the modern age, which is to say that information previously conveyed by anecdote has now been converted into statistics. Of the 15,000 students attending English universities surveyed by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy, 33 per cent believed that they were getting "poor" or "very poor" value for money, with a substantial percentage suggesting that the reason for this disquiet lay in low-quality lectures. Of those who skipped them, 40 per cent gave as their reason a conviction that "I didn't feel I needed to go because I could get the results online". The survey also showed that, on average, undergraduates were getting only 10 more minutes a week contact time with lecturers since the tripling of university fees.
No doubt, all this is very shocking to those members of the public whose impression of modern university life is derived from up-beat articles on the education pages of broadsheet newspapers, and yet it is difficult to imagine that anyone who participated in higher education – at any rate, the arts degree end of higher education – in the 1980s will have turned a hair.
The number of people I knew at Oxford who attended lectures could have been counted on the fingers of one hand; and when one did venture out to inspect one of the local celebrities in action the result was invariably a serious disappointment: Hugh Trevor-Roper, for example, dilating on Macaulay, turned out to be an irritable old party who seemed to be much more exercised by the handful of his auditors who had made the unpardonable mistake of not turning up in a gown than the subject under discussion.
And if the lecture hall rarely refined on the books available for inspection in the college library – which is where most undergraduates in search of knowledge ended up acquiring it – so what the 21st century survey calls "contact time" barely existed. By and large, at Oxford in the early 1980s, one saw one's tutor for an hour a week, during which time one read an essay (always received with the words "Thank you very much for that") and engaged in 10 minutes' small talk. Historical research revealed that conditions were no better and no worse than they had always been. The Oxford section of Kingsley Amis's Memoirs, for example, reveals that, when studying English in the 1940s, he divided lecturers into "hard" and "soft" categories. The hard men, mostly Anglo-Saxon specialists, might give you information useful for answering gobbet questions. The soft men, mostly amiable belles-lettrists such as Lord David Cecil, could be safely avoided.
For the record, Amis maintained that the worst lecturer he ever had the misfortune to sit through was J R R Tolkien. All of which exposes a difficulty quite as relevant to the New University of Uttoxeter, formerly Uttoxeter Polytechnic, here in 2014 as to the University of Oxford back in 1941, which is that a man or woman may be an extraordinarily proficient scholar – Tolkien at this point was probably the most distinguished Anglo-Saxonist in Europe – while lacking the communicative expertise of the average market trader. Short of the university authorities ordering the scholar in question to take a presentational skills course there is nothing that can be done about this, and the only course of action available to the disgruntled student is to stay away.
Interestingly, last week's survey was accompanied by an interview with the Universities minister David Willetts who maintained that while universities were beginning to take action to provide better quality teaching, "It is not enough and there is still more to do." This, most disinterested observers will agree, is genuinely shocking, for it consists of an admission by the representative of a government which is, albeit indirectly, charging most undergraduates in England £9,000 a year for the privilege of studying their subjects, that at least some of the tuition involved is inadequate. Even then, though, and despite having one son in higher education and another about to enter it, I could not quite raise myself to the levels of annoyance that such a statement as Mr Willetts' ought theoretically to provoke.
For the fact is that I went through my own university days transfixed by a kind of Orwellian double-think. Half of me, while suspecting that the undergraduate population was regarded by senior members of the university as a kind of necessary inconvenience, rather sympathised with the august figures at whose feet I metaphorically sat. They were brilliant men who were clearly wasting time on me that could have been better spent pursuing their research. On the other hand, I reflected, on the occasions when some piece of work hadn't been returned, or one was on the receiving end of some patronising remark, they were, when it came down to it, getting paid for this, and a little more enthusiasm would have been welcome.
If there was any consolation for the fact that one's status during these three years seemed to be on a par with that of a house-sparrow – something that is tolerated until it shows signs of becoming a nuisance – it rested on the fact that you walked through a kind of intellectual lunch counter, a world where knowledge and inspiration lay everywhere to hand – even if most of it had nothing to do with what was available in lecture halls or tutors' studies. The one thing I shall always be grateful to my Oxford college for is that the shelves in the part of the library where I sat working displayed a complete set of the novels of W M Thackeray – nothing to do with my subject, but the start of a lifelong obsession.
On the other hand, there is no point telling the modern student that universities, in their traditional form, were not so much seats of learning but places where, if you were lucky, you could light upon the books and the conversation that would allow you to become the person you wanted to be. The modern student is paying £9,000 a year and wants – is entitled to want – value for money and a job after graduation. The succession of governments that transformed the university system from a more or less scholarly enterprise to a subsidiary layer of the employment market has no one to blame but itself.Reuse content