Light work for nimble fingers;Comment;Opinion

5th January 1996 at 00:00
It is 11 years since we last accommodated the nephew who currently occupies the spare bedroom. Then we were more than glad to see the back of him because his mischievous seven-year old fingers wrought what can only be described as subtle chaos. He and his younger sister slept alongside the bed of Mum and Dad on one of those handy inflatable mattresses regularly featured in mail order catalogues. He wasted no time in locating its Achilles' heel causing slow deflation and a midnight crisis. The mattress failed to recover despite frequent testing in the bath and even the sea.

This incident we knew all about at the time, but it was interventions in household arrangements which went unnoticed until after departure that left the deeper scars. The expensive curtain pull mechanism in their room refused to work ever again; the record collection was subjected to a comprehensive reshuffle of cover and contents and every book in the "library" was pushed as far back into its shelf space as it could go creating a jarring uneven aspect where before all had been meticulous alignment. Grrr.

Now, however, we are hosts to an unassuming young student whose development we have watched from a safe distance over the years and now we would gladly spend more time in his company if his social agenda could but spare it.

Those questing young fingers have become increasingly engaged in constructive pursuits and, perhaps predictably, he embarked on an engineering degree last September. His enthusiasm has not survived the first semester and over dinner the other evening, he explained why.

It is a familiar tale of unfulfilled promises, questionable relevance and organisational malfunction. He is already considering a switch despite the fact that his course offered more precisely than most a curriculum to match his aspirations. He gained the qualifications sufficient to take his pick from the marketplace and his eventual selection was based on long hours of studying the options. It simply has not delivered and he cannot understand why. The degree is well established and the institution concerned has a robust reputation in the field.

The course and its host institution are both unfamiliar but the symptoms are not. There are foundation classes which are economical in manpower but leave the customer unsatisfied. Some know they would benefit if the material had greater depth but that would be to the detriment of those who do not require the depth and would have trouble coping. Nobody wins as the exercise degenerates into a straight compromise between student and examiner for a pass mark at the end.

What can I tell him? Stick with it lad, and in the fullness of time your brain will be profitably engaged. Or keep your mouth shut, accept the eventual degree with cynical good grace and then tell everyone what a splendid course it was in your day.

As target numbers are pushed ever upwards and the pressure to achieve them increases, more and more courses are being re-designed to match the logistics rather than the objectives.

Consequently standards are compromised so that complainers can be bought off with the promise of a degree to which by any proper academic yardstick they are not entitled, thus devaluing the qualification, of those who set off, like my nephew, with high hopes and the determination to fulfil their side of a contract which the other party regards with scant respect.

The records are back in their covers and the books once more symmetrically arranged, so no lasting damage was done. Can my nephew's university say the same?

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