Several degrees below par

11th July 2003 at 01:00
You might think that a curmudgeonly old nostalgic like me would be sulking at the news that more institutions are going to be able to call themselves universities.

I did groan at the first wave of name changes, not least because I knew a bit about the distinctiveness and sense of purpose of the old polytechnics (I once had a boyfriend who taught in one and talked about it endlessly).

It did not seem to me that calling more courses by the honourific of "university degrees" would contribute to that sense of purpose.

Now the horse has bolted. Universities are so diverse in size, purpose, quality and reputation that the word means nothing special, and guarantees nothing much: any more than the word "hotel" or "shop" or indeed "school" indicates quality or type.

Summerhill is a school, Eton is a school, likewise city academies, beacons, sinks, middling comps. Parents know that they have to ask more searching questions than just "is it a school?". The same with universities: so we might as well spread the term around even more widely, until every 18-year-old thoroughly understands that any old "uni" is not as good as any other.

Those in the trade may scoff and say that kids know this already: not so.

Not every family has a wide circle of academic friends and reads the trade press . There are bright, capable kids even now being lured into low-value courses at low-regarded institutions, simply because for reasons of mealy-mouthed political correctness it is not made clear to them that some universities will teach them more intensively, expect higher standards and work them a great deal harder. Some sign up - especially at clearing - without understanding the difference between modules and final exam systems. They choose by location, by rumour, by glossy brochure, by artfully-named course. Sometimes they choose something which turns out to be exiguous, underplanned, underfunded and academically unchallenging.

It is a maddening waste of talent, and a confidence trick played on people who get into debt to pay for it. One extremely bright girl I know had an offer from Durham, but short of information and understanding, turned it down in favour of a new university closer to home. Now she finds that the sum total of teaching offered to her is two short lectures a week, with no tutorial or seminar sessions, no opportunity to argue and discuss . The tasks she has been set are in her view rather below sixth-form level.

Flatmates think she's eccentric to care: they are merely enjoying being students, drinking and lying in and using the time to grow up slowly. She is so frustrated that she is considering doing an Open University course at the same time as her "degree", and then waiving the qualification when she graduates, saying "That's all of my time and energy that you didn't want".

We need a merciless, impartial Which-style report on university courses, not just the Push and Virgin guides to halls of residence, clubs, beer prices and the rest. When they go to open days - a luxury not all can afford - they need a list of very searching questions indeed; and though they might not feel like it, in the middle of A-levels, one of those questions should be "How hard will you work me?"

And there's another matter, which affects even the most highly-rated universities of all. Teaching undergraduates is no longer respected as it once was. One plain-spoken correspondent to a national paper recently remarked that it was actually "despised". The research and assessment excercise has encouraged academics to concentrate their efforts on churning out papers, often of dubious value , to cut short seminar time, avoid tutorial activity, and delegate actual teaching to the most junior PhD students they can get away with using.

Yet anybody who had a good university experience will tell you that the core and beating heart of it was the stimulating, often alarming relationship with a tutor, whether in a class or a smaller group. These figures loom like colossi, and become internalised voices which challenge you all your life.

"Support your statement. Your analysis rests on what, precisely...?"

Sometimes it is kindness that we remember; sometimes it is pure, rabbit-in-the-headlights terror of being exposed for idleness , inadequate reading or sloppy thinking. Both approaches have their merits. But one of the interesting things is how many of these legendary tutors did not publish much - or at all.

My own Dorothy Bednarowska once remarked that "my students, such as they are, must be my monument". They did not feel compelled to climb the greasy pole of public acclaim. They just taught.

I don't think that ranting about this will help. Academics are woefully underpaid, and get depressed easily. Instead of the stick, someone must found Carrut - the Campaign to Respect Real University Teaching. Champion Carruts may turn up in the most unexpected places, unsung minor universities. Sixth-formers should know where they are, and what they teach. In a choosy consumer society this vital and expensive choice should not be made with a blindfold.

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