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.

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Seven per cent of young men have recently stopped using deodorant  

‘Sweaty-gate’ leaves a bad smell for PRs and journalists

Danny Rogers
Alison Parker and Adam Ward: best remembered before tragedy  

The only way is ethics: Graphic portraits of TV killings would upset many, not just our readers in the US

Will Gore
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory