Arnold's World

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
For people of my age and background, a few magical phrases can still work like a 650 watt microwave on the cockles of our hearts - a Crackerjack pen and pencil set, the weekend starts here, Pan's People, Players Number 6, Strawberry Fields, and - undoubtedly the most evocative words in the English language - a full grant.

Today's undergraduates may find it impossible to believe, but when we were their age we were given money simply because we'd had the good sense to pass our A-levels. It was ours to do what we liked with - no Faustian pacts with a student loan agency, no small print, no obligation to give a bean of it back, absolutely no strings attached.

It was pound;360. Even if it didn't stretch to plovers' eggs and Mo t, it was more than enough to cover the cost of a dingy bed-sit, gramophone records, vindaloos, right-on posters, Beatle jacket - and even the occasional tipple.

Free of any serious financial worries, for three carefree years we were able to do what we wanted to do and even had a tentative stab at becoming who we wanted to be. A minority opted for the betting shop or the snooker hall, many manned the barricades or shouted slogans in Grosvenor Square, a few hung around in libraries or mixed things in test tubes, some never got out of bed. Whatever we did, or whatever we told our parents in our infrequent letters home, our primary and unquestioned objective was always to have a good time.

Today's undergraduates should feel under the same enormous obligation to enjoy themselves. So naturally I was heartened to discover that when the travelling Higher Education Fair came to Swansea in South Wales, it didn't choose as its venue the university campus or any of the portentous civic buildings, but the local leisure centre. I attended along with charabancs of lower-sixth hopefuls but it grieves me to report that, despite being assailed by the exhilarating whiff of chlorine and foot-stomping Manilow from the popmobility class elsewhere in the complex, leisure seemed to be the last thing on their 17-year-old minds. They all seemed alarmingly earnest - some even had clipboards - and were embarrassingly well informed on courses, entry requirements, career opportunities, business links and similarly sensible poppycock.

The debilitating impact of the national curriculum, national tests, the grind of coursework and the example being set by their knackered and numbed teachers has caused these youngsters to make the catastrophic mistake of equating higher education with hard labour.

It's particularly sad because, as the Government keeps reminding them, they are already doomed to "lifetime learning". They will constantly have to re-skill, re-learn, re-invent themselves and generally swot their little Calvin Klein socks off. Every reason, then, why they should be encouraged to treat HE as the last chance they will ever have to step off the educational treadmill. Buckinghamshire Chiltern University College, in High Wyecombe, offers a glimmer of hope by including a BA (Hons) in golf studies in its prospectus. But 18 holes for three long semesters sounds too much like hard work to me.

Any university that genuinely wanted to meet the needs of today's sixth-formers would have the courage to offer modules in various permutations of gathering rosebuds while ye may. I suppose it would have to peg its prices to those of Club 18-30, which will lumber its graduates with an astronomic overdraft for years to come. But that's going to happen whatever course they choose.

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