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University Challenged: “Another Fine Mess”

Settling down to write a blog for the School, I stumbled across this letter to a Vice-Chancellor and thought I would share it with you instead. I have only tidied it up a bit and remembered the title quote from Laurel and Hardy!

Dear Vice-Chancellor,

I am being pressed by my parents and school to complete my UCAS form and personal statement and get on with my university applications. I am a diligent student so I have done the background things, I have looked at the university brochures, I have read in the Times Higher about government education policy and the various challenges facing Universities. I saw in the paper (Telegraph I think) a couple of weeks ago that the average debt of a graduating student is £87,000, meanwhile I also read Beckford’s blog http://intelligentorganisation.com/uncategorised/university-challenged/ which set out the basic cost-benefit argument.

My Mum on the other hand worries about me getting into debt and, to be frank, living where we do, £87,000 would be enough to buy a small house – but when I want to do that I will already have that amount hanging over me for 30 years! Mum also worries about what she calls the ‘laddish’ culture at university, she is concerned that I should not be in a place where sexual activity is expected or coerced. My Dad, meanwhile bangs on about what a wonderful opportunity university provides. Back in the day, the first from his family to go to university (redbrick), he got a grant – he was practically paid for being at university and worked on building sites in the summer for extra cash. Once he is a couple of beers in to the conversation life seems to have revolved around sunshine, lying on the grass, smoking some of it, quoting Bill and Ben esp Little Weed, Kafka, Chomsky, Wittgenstein and Confucius and pondering the meaning of eclectic while listening to Pink Floyd.

I find it a bit strange that at nearly 18 I can have sex (provided it is not with someone under 16 or coerced by an adult with responsibility for me), smoke a cigarette, drink alcohol with a meal and if caught in possession of illegal drugs likely only get cautioned and drive a car – though not all at the same time. I can’t though vote in elections or in the referendum on Europe the outcome of which will dictate a large part of my future.

I can, though, commit to getting into debt.

I understand also that as part of Europe I can apply to attend a university in another country. I heard of one boy who is applying to a place in Poland where the course is taught in English and he will pay no fees. Although we can’t learn Polish at my school, no fees and a much lower cost of living is quite appealing.

I already have an AS in Mathematics and am taking English, History and French through to A Level. My Dad says it is important that, if I go, I study something I am interested in. I want to study archaeology and maybe become an archaeologist. My Mum argues with him that there is no point in getting into debt studying a subject she describes as ‘about as much use as a chocolate teapot when it comes to making a living’. My Dad counters her with an argument that it doesn’t matter what I study, the point of going to university is to learn something about a particular subject and in doing so to learn how to research, to critically review, to construct and defend my own arguments about the subject but most of all to grow up and learn to take responsibility for myself and my life. He says once I have demonstrated graduate ability loads of employers will be open to me – but it seems to me from what I read and hear that more and more employers want graduates who are ‘work-ready’, which implies I must acquire skills relevant to the job rather than the subject knowledge I need to graduate. That baffles me too: is university about learning things or work skills?

Trouble is, as I see it, that I first have to take the decision I understand least; before I have learned to construct and defend my own arguments and take responsibility, I have to take the decision about borrowing money. And if it doesn’t work out then I am stuck with it. If I buy something from a shop and it doesn’t work, then I am entitled to a refund; yet if I pay to go to University and I don’t benefit from it as I expect, then it is, apparently, my fault, the university has no liability – but it is the university that provides the product or service?

So, this is my dilemma, Vice-Chancellor. I don’t know what to do and thought that, perhaps, as you are in charge of a university you might be able to advise me?

Eve Ryman

What could I, your blogger, possibly add?

This Blog post was written by John Beckford, Visiting Professor at the SBE and member of the Centre for Information Management.