The which degree show;Comment;Opinion

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Two university lecturers were sitting quietly in the College Club. One was on the point of retirement and after 30 years in Glasgow he was confiding to his friend that he didn't really like the city. "I think I can trace it back to the day I arrived, having come up from London. I reached a junction somewhere in the east end, but both signs said Glasgow so I beckoned over a passer-by and said, 'I'm going to the university and both signs say Glasgow. Does it matter which one I take?' With which the other chap said, 'Not to me it doesn't', and walked away."

For some of our current school students arrival at their chosen university may prove every bit as difficult. No doubt fashions change. Durham, Bristol, St Andrews may all currently appeal to those excluded by Oxbridge, and the City of Culture exposure may have attracted some southern students to Glasgow, but "quality assurance" reports themselves are of arguable benefit. How do a department's publications weigh against teaching, especially when judgments about quality may be made by a rival from a different university after the same pot of money. Where are the ratings for excellence of facilities, for student welfare provision, for range of courses?

When our senior pupils make their choices for higher education we try to equip them to make personal and sensible decisions: urban centre or campus; traditional university or fledgling; home or away; lectures by television to 700 or more individual attention; continuous assessment or end-of-term exam? Nothing prepares them until the experience itself - of feeling inadequate when everyone else seems confident, of struggling to come to terms with more demanding levels of work, of organising for oneself instead of a life structured by school.

One friend arrived at Glasgow with a purloined F2 jotter for all his notes (this carbon-dates the anecdote). He soon learnt. In his first tutorial he was asked for a paper for the following week. He thought wildly - Evening Times, Evening Citizen - before finding out the truth.

For all their assumed confidence today's teenagers might seem under greater pressure. Debt, drugs and graduate unemployment are all real enough in 1997, yet talking recently to an 88-year-old about her arrival at Glasgow in 1927 redressed the balance.

Thrown out of her digs for contracting measles, she later in her first year developed a lasting hatred of dentists when one made a pass at her after a tooth extraction. When she objected he said: "You're not like the nurses at the Western."

For today's students the vagaries of being accepted on a course can be the initial barrier, as strange inconsistencies exist. One young person of my acquaintance, with five A passes at Higher and a B - all in fifth year - didn't even get a conditional offer from Newcastle to study English, yet four B passes would have been a probable entry grouping for Glasgow.

The suspicion remains that Higher are a foreign country for some admissions officers south of the border, despite the acknowledged difficulty of comparing Scottish and English qualifications.

As the exams finish and the waiting for results begins, perhaps the perspective on learning needs to be extended beyond the immediate, no matter how important the next few months seem to current students.

The 88-year-old phoned last week, just back from a day's seminar on W B Yeats organised by her local Women's Institute. Did I have anything on George Eliot as it was her turn to lead next month's tutorial?

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