Nicholas Lezard: We've forgotten what university is for

Students are being turned into mindless consumers
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Apparently the number of students who emerge from their universities "unsatisfied" with the experience is rising. My news source does not say what exactly they are dissatisfied with but, in my day (I'm sorry: this is another one of those "in my day" pieces), it was universities that were dissatisfied with their students, and not the other way around. I certainly recall being woken up, as if by a cold shower, with a rather pointed suggestion that if I wanted to remain a student, it might be a good idea to write more than one essay per term.

This struck me at the time as something of an outrage against what going to university was meant to be all about (also: why did they want to read any more of my essays? The one I wrote was lousy). In my case, university was a place where you learned to lever a very small amount of knowledge into a formidable display of intellectual snobbery. The idea of preparing yourself for a career was ridiculous, unless boulevardier was a career option.

But why shouldn't it be? In this sense, university is always vocational, even if you are studying the liberal arts (especially if you are). It should be a place where you learn how to become a rounded adult: how to love, how to argue, how to make proper friends, how to hold your drink – even how to cook.

A poignant detail about this last: on a visit to my alma mater earlier this year, I popped in for a nostalgic visit to my old college. Actually, I needed a pee, but that's not particularly relevant, except insofar as it took me past one of the tiny, cell-like kitchenettes where I used to prepare my rudimentary meals. In My Day these places were equipped with a pair of modest gas rings. I had only the faintest idea at first what they were for; over three years I learned to use them quite resourcefully (this was a matter of self-preservation as well as economy: the stuff served up to undergraduates in the dining halls bordered on the toxic). But nowadays the gas rings have gone and they have been replaced by microwave ovens.

Big deal, you might say. Which only goes to show how degraded we have become. If you want to turn impressionable people, presumably hungry for knowledge as well as dinner, into mindless consumers, then one very good way to start the process is to make microwaving the only available means of preparing food.

Doubtless there are arguments pertaining to expense, and health and safety regulations (although last time I checked, no college had burned to the ground as a result of cooking-related incompetence). It's another area of potential delight closed off forever. In its small way it symbolises the barbaric, rootless anti-civilisation we are turning into.

We are in the grip of a joyless, bleak utilitarianism, one whose gaze is becoming fixed not on the horizon, or the stars, or the bigger picture, but on the bottom line: the line of economy, of cost/benefit analysis, a world of bean-counters, box-ticking and assessments.

Since the advent of tuition fees, anything that is not applicable to a guaranteed financial outcome is increasingly suspect. In a supreme irony, this has resulted in cutbacks in teaching staff.

The idea that a university should be a place where you equip yourself with the skills to avoid an office job, rather than end up in one, is no longer tenable. It's a crying shame. No wonder the students are getting upset.