Congratulations to us on our fine RAE results, staff and, er, students

Degree ceremonies have become shameless branding exercises in which graduates are mere afterthoughts, laments Susan Bassnett

August 25, 2011

Credit: James Fryer

Over the past few years I have been to dozens of degree ceremonies. As pro vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick, I attended two-figure numbers every year; as a mother of four, I have been present at ceremonies in ancient English and Scottish universities, in former polytechnics, in redbricks and, most recently, in Wales. All the ceremonies are great occasions, as families travel vast distances to celebrate and the universities put on a display to signal their importance in the world of academe.

Some events are better run than others, some are tedious, some offer generous hospitality, some charge extortionate sums for a cup of tea and a biscuit. There is always ritual, centuries old or recently invented; some have musical interludes, some are held in cathedrals, some in civic halls. Academic processions vary in size, from the grandiose to the puny, depending on whether staff can be bothered to turn up once the final exam boards have ended. And there is always a speech.

It's the speeches I have problems with: they all follow the same pattern, as though there is a template that everybody consults in advance. Someone - a vice-chancellor, pro vice-chancellor or what have you - rises with dignity and takes the stand to deliver eight to 20 minutes (I time them!) of pompous dross. Usually these speeches take place at the start, but occasionally they come after the presentations, when everyone is desperate to leave.

All the speechifiers congratulate the graduands, but the congratulatory message takes up less than 1 per cent of the time because the primary object is to proclaim the University Brand. To hear these speeches, you would think every university is producing world-class research, cares passionately about equal opportunities, has Olympic-standard sports facilities and will before long be one of the top 20 institutions in the world. The university's astounding success in the last research assessment exercise is touched upon, and then somewhere in all this euphoric praise a reference or two is tossed in about how caring the (mainly absent from the stage) teaching staff have been. Often after these occasions my trip home is marked by complaints from one of my offspring or their partners that the speaker seemed to think students were an afterthought.

We know that politicians are likely to bend the truth, but we expect (perhaps naively) better from academics. Yet at these various ceremonies I have heard boasts about glorious building projects from institutions mired in debt, claims to be widening access from universities taking in scores of underqualified fat-fee-paying international students, declarations of support for the arts and humanities from places busy closing such departments and, most jarring of all, speeches about the wonderful, caring support given by dedicated staff to students.

Staff so dedicated that in one university department students received so little feedback that they discovered their grades only when they saw their final transcripts; that in another institution a man allocated to supervise dissertations disappeared on research leave; in another a lecturer's English was so poor that students could not understand anything that was said - and in every case the excuse is always that the research undertaken by these precious people is so important that this kind of behaviour should be tolerated sympathetically. Parents like myself who know how universities ought to work are left bemused and angry; parents who did not attend university themselves may well assume that this is normal, and when they hear the degree-day speeches extolling the glory of the institution they have paid a fortune to send their child to, they may be forgiven for wanting to believe everything that is set before them.

I paused in writing this to open the door to the postman, who delivered a package of my son's essays, complete with the feedback sheets that he had been asking for since January. The feedback was extremely well done - if he had received it six months ago he might have been able to benefit from it before his finals. Lack of timely feedback is the one unending student complaint that I have been hearing for a decade or more, ever since the drive to climb league tables started to dwarf every other consideration. You don't hear such trivia mentioned in the Great Branding Speeches.

I love the ritual, the processions, the music and the joyous whoops from families and friends as students step up to collect their degrees. But I would like the speakers to be a little more honest, to dispense with the boastful packaging, and to acknowledge that the role of universities is to teach the next generation and to provide real value for the increasingly large sums of money that students and parents now spend. Perhaps the academics who do not turn up are not research-obsessed, student-despising killjoys, but are simply too jaded by the relentless institutional self-promotion on what ought to be a celebration of student success to want to be seen to be part of it.

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