New students should seek education, not satisfaction

A fresher on the joys of exchanging a rigid and prescriptive curriculum for learning through free-form debate.

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With the fun and frolics of fresher’s week drawing to a close, it’s now the time of year for another batch of sixth-form escapees, having packed their belongings and travelled halfway across the country, to enter properly into the world of higher education. I’m one of them; a Law student who is part of the first group of students to be charged £9,000 per year for my degree. This controversial educational reform has given rise to increased scrutiny of whether the ‘university experience’ provides value for money to students.

However, the consumerist focus that this scrutiny has intensified is making expectations of the educational experience of students, at all levels, increasingly one-sided. From the prominence of “student satisfaction” data in university league tables to concerns over proposals for a new English Baccalaureate to replace GCSEs, the debate continues to be focused upon how best to provide students with the magic box of skills for The Real World.

 Unfortunately, there is no magic box of skills; life and academic skills are not as neatly packed together, or as easily attainable, as this. A lopsided focus upon what school, college, or university can provide students with is therefore insufficient. At a time when we obsess over what education is providing students, students would do better to look at what we can be providing for ourselves.

This time last year, I entered a team of four students from my sixth form into the Debating Matters competition, organised and produced by the Institute of Ideas. Stepping down from the audience to sit on a panel of equally terrified students in the first debate of the qualifying round on the issue of Scottish independence was a particularly nerve-wracking experience.

As a Unionist, arguing in favour of the separation of the UK was a challenge that made me focus upon the political principles underpinning the issue, like the nature of sovereignty and the importance of self-determination. The extensive preparation undertaken on my part gave me the opportunity to learn about a current issue with a depth rarely encouraged at school level. It allowed me to find a sustainable position on the issue and then proceed to thrash out how to present this argument coherently to an audience of students, all of whom had as strong personal convictions on this divisive issue as I did.

The joys of debate

The freedom to think about a topical issue in an independent, principled way is one of the most appealing aspects of debating. Throughout challenging myself as a debater, I began to understand how abstract concepts like autonomy, liberty, and paternalism fundamentally affected the way in which we discuss so many moral and political issues.

I found being involved in school debating a fantastic opportunity to escape the rigidity of the A Level system

Fundamentally, debating allows students to think for themselves; rather than accept premises put forward by politicians and the mainstream media as self-evident, I found myself scrutinising and rethinking them. At times, this process reinforced their validity; at others, it directed me to look outside of the political consensus.

There is little in the national curriculum, or indeed on offer at universities as a compulsory part of a degree course, that allows students the opportunity to reflect upon issues in this way. Students should seek out opportunities like this for themselves; for the independent approach to thinking that debating in this way cultivates is best sought after by the individual student, not provided to them within the rigidity of a national curriculum or degree programme.

One of the most infuriating aspects to studying for A Levels is the prescriptive nature of the courses and the necessarily incessant focus on exam preparation, particularly the style and form of argument. The modular system creates a learning environment in which information is seen through the prism of exam preparation - it is retained for the purpose of subsequent regurgitation and appreciated only as a gateway to a higher grade. I found being involved in school debating a fantastic opportunity to escape the rigidity of the A Level system. A student can validly criticise the lack of freedom or intellectual aspiration in his or her system of education, but this changes little. Students frustrated with their educational experience should bear some personal responsibility for their own progress and actively seek out opportunities like the one I found in Debating Matters.

Though, given the rise in tuition fees, this year’s university intake may expect an even better education from their chosen university, we should take on some of this responsibility ourselves. We may have a right to education but a good education is much more a personal endeavour than a right. Being well-educated is very much our own responsibility.

James Shaw is an undergraduate at the University of Oxford and alumnus of the Institute of Ideas Debating Matters Competition. The Debating Matters International Final between the winners of the UK & India Competition will take place at the Battle of Ideas on Saturday 20 October

Independent Voices is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest articles from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

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