Charm offensive

Tim Birkhead on universities' courtship of their next cohort of students

September 23, 2010

Open days are now a regular feature of many universities. I've usually been on the delivery end of such days, but recently I had the opportunity to be a receiver and see things from the parental (if not quite a sixth former's) point of view. It was an education, in more ways than one. At one university, our charming and enthusiastic student host told us how much he had enjoyed the final-year project of his fine art degree. At the end he asked if we had any questions. "Yes," one parent asked: "What was your project on?" The student paused and said: "The visual representation of personal grief." Somewhat shocked, the parent then asked why on earth he had done something so miserable. Taking a deep breath, the student said that on entering his final year he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. "Shut up, Dad!" someone whispered, after which an embarrassed silence descended on the assembled group. But then, looking slightly more cheerful, our host said: "But I'm OK now." "Oh, bravo," another parent piped up, and - for some reason - we all applauded.

The purpose of visit days is to enable prospective students (and their parents) to evaluate university departments. It is a process that bears an uncanny resemblance to sexual selection. Natural selection, you recall, is about differential survival; but Darwin's ingenious concept of sexual selection is about differential reproductive success. Sexual selection is mediated by males competing with other males, and females choosing between males. Males compete for status, usually by being bigger, stronger and sometimes smarter than other males, and females choose between males, usually on the basis of their display - plumage and song. A familiar example is the peacock's elaborate tail display. Peahens visit and evaluate males at their display grounds and then, having made a choice, copulate with him and raise his babies.

Like universities, peacocks also exhibit their qualities by a long-distance display - in their case an irritating "yee-ow" call that is audible for a kilometre. The university's equivalent is the web page, and possibly its RAE reputation via one or more league tables. Long-distance displays are OK, but to assess true quality, you need to be up close: does that peacock have any ticks or lice that might signal a poor immune system? Just how good is that array of iridescent eyespots?

For me, the most striking feature of the universities' close-up displays - er, visit days - that I saw was the huge variation in quality. Some universities put on a fine parasite-free performance, while others were distinctly limp. With such variation, you would think that making a choice would be straightforward, but it wasn't, because, confusingly, a poor performance could mean either genuinely poor quality, or that the institution had such a sense of superiority that it did not see any need to display, believing its long-distance displays to be sufficient to impress.

At one university, our visit got off to a poor start when, despite arriving at the appropriate time, parents and offspring were asked to wait in a lecture theatre until a delayed busload of others arrived. I'm not sure they ever did, but we waited bored and uninformed for an hour. Finally, when the tour began, our guide was an untrained, underperforming undergraduate. She divulged information only reluctantly and in such way that only those standing closer than a socially unacceptable 50cm could hear. Then, on entering one department, we caught the occupants with their academic trousers down; in one case in the middle of an argument, and in another we were forced to scramble over a clutter of cardboard boxes blocking a narrow corridor. "Prepared" was not a word that came to mind. After 45 minutes, the parental mutterings erupted into full-blown anger and the guide was firmly requested to "up their game". Incapable of doing so, she simply walked away. Like everyone else, I felt insulted; some people considered complaining to the organiser, but the consensus was, "why bother". Sadly, but reassuringly, the visit day display matched the institution's RAE ranking.

At the other extreme were universities that were well aware of their superior status, having already succeeded in competition - primarily through research - and that apparently felt little need to display. Their perfunctory performance reminded me of the bullfinch. This little bird can get away with investing very little in producing sperm, so confident is he that his partner will not cuckold him. In contrast, the dunnock is a species whose females are particularly promiscuous, and to have any chance at all of fathering offspring, males have to invest a great deal of energy in producing very large numbers of sperm in an effort to out-compete their rivals.

In between these two extremes - and these were in the majority - were universities whose visit day displays sparkled. They were well organised; the academic staff who showed us around were enthusiastic, charismatic and well informed. One woman (an administrator, not an academic) who gave a talk on student finance was extraordinary and would have eclipsed The One Show hosts Jason Manford and Alex Jones in a contest of charm and communication ability.

I hope the student guide with testicular cancer made a complete recovery. I hope, too, that his enthusiasm resulted in his department getting plenty of applicants. And I really hope he has forgiven me for asking about his final-year project.

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