Sunday, 12 December 2010

A University Education: Is it worth it?

This is autobiography - and, on this occasion, quite difficult to write

I have always had my doubts about universities, doubts about the students and doubts about the teachers.

In 1965 I began a degree, on a full grant topped up with an Open Scholarship (£370 + £60 per year, enough to live on). I was the first in my family to attend University, sponsored by my boys' grammar school for Oxford entrance. My school told us it was hard to get into Oxford. But when I arrived and began talking to my fellow students at St. Peter's College, I was surprised. I had three As at A level. Some of them had a couple of Ds and Es. But they had gone to (minor) public schools and (more importantly) their fathers had attended St. Peter's. They were often sons of clergy, and at that time St. Peter's catered to them. The head of the college, J P Thornton-Duesbery, was a Moral Re-armer. Some of these young men with Ds and Es became active in OICU: the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, a scary organisation of fundamentalists.

I don't think my grammar school realised they were enrolling me in a God-bothering Oxford college. They just thought St Peter's was an easy college to get boys into; its academic results were dismal.

Nowadays, maybe the equivalent of St Peter's is a former polytechnic where you are expected to lean to the left and study some bogus subject.

I didn't think very highly of my degree course (PPE) or (some of) those who taught it. When I graduated with a First, I wrote a pamphlet attacking the content of the PPE degree. Someone republished it a couple of years ago when people were marking the 40th Anniversary of the 1968 Student Revolt. Then a few years later, I wrote a piece of autobiography which reflects on the quality of the teaching - this piece, which I prefer to the pamphlet, is now on my own website,

Thirty years later, at the first opportunity, I took early retirement from my University teaching post. There were many reasons. Not the most important, but the hardest one to acknowledge - I have never said this before - was the feeling that too many of my colleagues, and too many of my students, weren't very bright.

I had colleagues who had poor degrees (Lower Seconds or worse) and no subsequent research achievements to show that their degree-awarding universities had judged them wrong. They had got into university teaching during the period of university expansion when there were lots of jobs and not enough candidates. My feeling was that some of them had sought a careeer in university teaching precisely as a way of denying awareness of their own intellectual limitations. They were like surgeons who do botched jobs.

Sometimes students realised that their teachers weren't really up to it. On one occasion, I was asked to repeat a course for a group who had protested that they had been intellectually short-changed by a colleague of mine. They had been, believe me.

But then there were the students. For the last ten years or so of my career, I didn't teach undergraduates. I taught MA students enrolled on full- or part-time programmes for which (unless sponsored) they paid their own fees. They were "soft" programmes - Creative Writing and such like - and, basically, if you could pay, you could join. The barrier of an Upper Second as a criterion of admission had gone.

The result was a Mixed Ability class.

I came to the (private) conclusion that probably most university education in "soft" areas - the arts, the humanities, the social sciences - should be offered as "adult education" within part-time provision, with open enrolment, and full-cost fees. I could not think of any good reason why what I was doing should receive government funding.

I no longer have contact with universities - and they do not have contact with me.

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