Reflections on Graduation

My sons graduated this year. As parents, we always encouraged and supported them to study whatever they wanted to. The only thing I ever said was: “I don’t mind what you study so long as it’s not business, management or marketing.”

Both paid £9,000 per year for their courses. One attended Leicester, the other Cambridge; one studied Ancient History and Archaeology, the other History of Art; one got a 2:1, the other a starred 1st.

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Both were accepted into their first choice Masters degree courses, one to study Byzantium Studies at King’s College in London, the other to study Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art. Clearly, they took me at my word.

On one level then, their £27,000 ‘investment’ has enabled them to take their next step into the big wide world, and, of course, extend their opportunity to leverage that investment by acquiring more intellectual, cultural, and social capital. Or they’re simply accruing even more debt.

But while they ‘paid’ the same amount for their degrees the ‘student experience’ and respective ‘value’ they received was different. I was shocked to hear how little contact time my son had in his final year at Leicester– around 4 hours per week. When higher education was free, ‘reading’ for your degree was the norm, but now students pay nine-grand a year, quite rightly, they expect more than a seat in the library.

My son at Cambridge spent a great deal of time in the library too, but he also had more contact time and the nature of that time, one-to-one or small group supervision in addition to lectures and seminars, was qualitatively different and ‘better’.

And let’s face it, most of us understand that if we want better quality it usually means we have to pay more – except of course in higher education.

Clearly, contact time is only one element of ‘value’ but what’s also clear is that if your son or daughter is studying an arts, social science or humanities degree, they end up subsidising their friends who are studying medicine or science or engineering. They receive far more contact time for their money and these subjects are way more expensive to teach than archaeology or art history. Science requires labs for students to hone their scientific skills, labs that are expensive and costly to run, not only in terms of equipment but also trained, technical staff who assist the students.

The State used to subsidise students’ education; now it’s some students subsidising other students. What this points to more broadly, is the total mess successive governments have made in bringing market mechanisms into higher education. It doesn’t work. Here’s why.

First, from a student perspective they are not really consumers at all. To be sure they get to choose in terms of their initial selection of Universities. We now have to compete for students. We put on expensive open days, produce lavish brochures, “brand” ourselves by drawing on sources of reputation and prestige, etc. Of course, all of this costs money, money we get from the students’ fees but that doesn’t directly translate into their education. But that’s where their ability to act as consumers ends – what happens when they’ve made their choice?

Education provision is a service but most of the services we use and pay for don’t last for 3 years and don’t cost nine grand a year. When the boys were young we went for a pizza at Pizza Express. It was a Friday night and it was busy. We placed our order and waited, and waited, and waited. After about an hour both boys were asleep at the table. When I pointed this out to the waitress she was very apologetic and explained that the delay was caused because they were one pizza maker down. I said that if she had told me this when we had arrived I could have used this information to inform my choice and that we would have gone elsewhere. We got the entire meal on the house. This illustrates that if I am unhappy with the quality of service I’m receiving then I can do something about it. In this example, I complained and was compensated. If she hadn’t it’s likely that the next time we wanted a pizza we would have chosen to go somewhere else. As it turned out the recovery of the service failure by the Pizza Express waitress made us like them even more.

However, what happens when a student complains about a poor educational experience? I have yet to hear of the university equivalent of a free meal on the house.

For sure, the number of complaints we get every year goes up, but what they are mainly complaining about is not a poor educational experience. After all, as undergraduates, most have nothing to compare the experience they are getting with anything else.

No, what most students complain about is that they didn’t get the mark they expected. On my own course I know that anyone in receipt of a mark lower than 60 will, at the very least, moan and at worst complain, unless I make it pretty clear to them why they got the mark they did. When I was an undergraduate, any mark over 60 was an excuse for an all-dayer in the student bar.

Second, from our perspective, the student-as-consumer model has fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship we have with our students – mentor/ mentees is replaced with service deliverer/ consumers. For those of us who’ve always taken our teaching responsibilities seriously, this has meant increased bureaucracy, to monitor that we are doing what we were already doing. Class sizes have also increased and, with this, innovation, or cost-effective service delivery, in terms of how our teaching is delivered.

But we still spend more time, way more time, marking than we do teaching – sitting in our offices and not engaging students in the classroom or lecture hall.

We also offer our students more choices in terms of what modules they can study. Both programme directors and students consider this a good thing. It’s just the research evidence and my own experience of advising students suggests the opposite. More choice leads to choice paralysis (an inability to make a choice) or to doubt over whether the right choice has been made. More choice, through more modules, offered in two distinct semesters, also means that academic and intellectual development is constrained. This means that we have less time to train and develop their minds, to improve their ability to think and reflect critically, or to develop and present reasoned argument based on ‘evidence’. They’re good at passing exams though.

We are complicit in producing the next generation of compliant worker bees for the hive of capitalism. Students leaving University with huge amounts of debt are thus locked into the system that produced them. Students-as-consumers want a return on their investment – the higher salary they can expect to earn throughout their working lives. Some universities have merely become the modern day equivalent of the ‘finishing’ school.

But what we lose, as a result, is more important.

At my son’s graduation in Leicester it was notable that for many parents, as they whooped and hollered when their son or daughter (and it was mainly daughters) walked onto stage to receive their degree, education is still important for its transformational potential.

And at my other son’s graduation at Cambridge, it was very clearly spelt out to them that they were privileged to have received the education they did. These are the parting words of the Dean of King’s College Chapel:

“Learn deeply, see clearly, serve humanity more effectively. These are the tasks of the well educated, those who have grown in both wisdom and humility.”