Guardian Unlimited | Columnists | It isn’t philistinism to give students value for money
There’s a lot I would agree with here. Certainly Polly Toynbee is right to say that many students are treating their degree studies as a part time occupation. Where I would take issue with her is where she suggests that this means they could do their degrees much more quickly if they put in more hours in the classroom. In a subject such as English Literature, a major proportion of a student’s time needs to be taken up with reading. Yes, I know, that’s a statement of the bleeding obvious. But actually, a surprisingly high number of students don’t seem to be able to grasp that simple fact. They have a model of education (and I couldn’t possibly comment on where they got it from) in which information is transmitted from a tutor to the student without passing through the student’s brain. At its worst, this manifests itself as a kind of weary passivity: I had a student once (on a teacher-training course, no less) who said to me, “Why can’t you just tell us what to write and we’ll write it?” Thankfully, I don’t get many students as intellectually bankrupt as that one. I do, though, get some who ask why is that they have to read lots of books, and how come the books are so long, and, like, old? The requirement to read eats in to their social and working life, but pace Polly, the courses they are on are designed to operate on the basis that they will use their copious non-contact time to read, reflect, write, plan, engage with the material of their study. Cutting down on the amount of time they have outside the classroom won’t improve that situation. They need to understand that doing a degree properly (and not as a bit of time-filling between clubbing excursions and stacking shelves at Tesco) involves a lot of commitment, dedication, and, yes, hard work, often self-motivated.
Polly also seems to feel that it’s important that “hard” subjects – which always means the sciences – are taken up by lots of students. I wouldn’t argue with that, but I would suggest that virtually any subject, studied with sufficient rigour, is worthy of a place in university life. I think we fetishize the work-related aspect of study too much. This is currently manifested in the government’s and the funding council’s emphasis on work placements as part of all degrees – sensible enough if you are studying architecture, but a bit difficult if your subject is medieval theology. On the one hand, we have, throughout education, an emphasis on the acquisition of “skills” which, we are told, will equip people for the fast-changing working lives they will lead, in a world where no-one’s job will be for life, where people will have a portfolio of different work experiences and so on. OK – so why seek to link particular subjects with particular work, often in a ludicrously artificial way? Why not insist instead on high standards of academic rigour in the teaching and learning of subjects, a policy which will deliver transferable skills to equip students for the fast changing work environment of the 21st century? As a big noise from IBM said to a colleague of mine recently -“We’re interested in intelligent, lively, communicative graduates. We don’t care what subject their degree is – we can teach them all they need to know about computing in the first six months. We need people who can work individually and as a team, who have initiative, who can write literate reports, who can communicate…”
I don’t think Polly’s image of the tweedy research-based academic has much basis in the reality of modern mass higher education. I expect there are a few of these dinosaurs still about, but the rest of us have had to adapt to a very different landscape than one dominated by ivory towers.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Value for money? by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.