Open days seen from the other side

Christopher Phelps views universities through new eyes when he accompanies his daughter on a tour of UK campuses

December 11, 2014

On the train to London, my 17-year-old daughter is vibrant with the possibility of living and studying in a metropolis. We exit the Tube, and a student helper in an official university T-shirt cheerfully directs us the wrong way. Even so, we manage to locate the gates of Elite London University.

It is a golden autumn day. Sunlight dapples the walkways beneath mature trees. My mind strays back to a taster talk I gave for open days for my own department based on my research into how Americans have thought about strikes. I am curious to see how open days will be conducted at a competing institution, in a very different discipline.

Arriving at the tables laid out by the biology department, we are assigned a tour guide, a biochemistry student in his second year. Nervous and awkward, he leads us towards the library. I ask if it meets all his needs. “Yes,” he replies, “except you can’t shower there on weekends.”

It is a non sequitur of comic genius, all the better for being delivered with complete earnestness. When I inform him that I meant his intellectual needs, we receive a more customary answer.

One applicant tried to find a substitute phrase for ‘piles of snow’. The unfortunate resultant phrase was ‘haemorrhoids of snow’

I am old enough to have seen the Ramones play live, and somewhere back in those mists of time a younger me travelled with my father to a few campuses along the American eastern seaboard. It was before college mania swept the US. I can’t say our visits to campuses made much difference to the outcome. Princeton University was my father’s favourite, but I picked a bohemian liberal arts college on the West Coast, sight unseen.

It hardly seems possible that my own daughter is now seeking admission to university. Her quest began in April with a train ride across the Pennines to Great Northern University, an institution renowned, she tells me, for its drinking culture and music scene. I could not accompany her, but there she sat in a vast lecture hall holding perhaps a thousand parents and offspring for a charming presentation on all the life sciences, from anatomy to zoology. She loved the busy, diverse city but was shocked when the first housing she was shown was dingy, drab and dismal. Subsequently she was shown a clean self-catering facility, making housing at Great Northern University seem a lottery with random consequences – satisfactory or dire.

At Elite London University, things look up. The housing, even the least expensive room, is modern, tasteful and clean. At the biology session, though, my daughter is put off by the opener. A senior lecturer regrets that £9,000 annual tuition fees are producing consumerist attitudes in students. She merely means to encourage students from the outset to be active in their education, and to persuade them to study hard instead of assuming that monetary expenditures entitle them to a degree, as I explain to my daughter. “So why not say that? Why not stay positive?” she asks.

Fortunately, a taster talk on snake venom follows, just the right sort of topic to intrigue an audience of adolescents. My daughter is further charmed by the enthusiastic woman who coordinates foreign-language study for biology students, which can include time at a university in Spain.

Towards the end of our day at Elite London University, we are ushered into a grand hall for a bonus session on how to write an effective Ucas personal statement. The speaker, an outside consultant, turns out to be scathing in her mockery of past student errors. One applicant, she says, tried to spice up his application by digging around in the thesaurus to find a substitute phrase for “piles of snow”. The unfortunate resultant phrase was “haemorrhoids of snow”.

As we head to Oxbridge, our final destination, my daughter gives some signs of trepidation that a condescending social aristocracy will predominate in its life, but after a day in the biology quarters and traipsing from one residential college to another, she brims with enthusiasm. Only at one college do her stereotypes hold. At several others – we visited enough, in rapid sequence, to obtain two free lunches – we both found the students intelligent, spirited and not at all snobby. One residential college in particular enchants her with its spacious, verdant grounds.

The biology presentation reminds me of the instructions a New York Times editor once gave his reporters: “flood the zone”. Most of the department’s lecturers seem to be on hand. I speak to three in less than an hour. I have none of my daughter’s aptitude for science, but the department’s strength in evolutionary biology allows me to draw on my old reading of Stephen Jay Gould, and I enjoy the lecturers’ impressive banter about field research in South America. The manner is down to earth, confident and serious, underscoring a core intellectual mission.

“We may not be the best,” concludes the engaging talk at the end, “but they think we are.”

My daughter’s only remaining qualm about Oxbridge is that it doesn’t provide a means for biology students to study Spanish.

For my part, I come away thinking about how my own programme might learn from others’ open-day strengths and weaknesses. If we strive to see our endeavours through the eyes of the observer, stay upbeat, include a substantive taster talk, use humour, involve our most personable students, and flood the zone with as many academic staff as possible, maybe we will enhance our magnetic powers.

As for my daughter, with multiple offers on the table and an interview at Oxbridge pending, her future lies wide open.

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Reader's comments (2)

Bizarre comment that 'Oxbridge' doesn't offer the opportunity to study Spanish alongside Biology. Perhaps a quick look at the websites of the Language Centres of each university would help to clarify that both actually do provide just such opportunities. In fact thousands of students of any discipline in each university are taking up just such opportunities, convinced (many of them belatedly, though clearly this is not the case with the author's daughter!) that to be a competitive global graduate in any field, you need languages. Please see below:
Thanks for the response. I'm not talking about the capacity to learn the language. That's what the language centres you focus upon have on offer: classes in learning to communicate. She is fluent already and beyond that. What I am talking about would in essence be a science-humanities crossover, a joint honours degree in biology and Spanish which would involve seminars in literature and history. That is offered by both Great Northern University and Elite London University. At Oxbridge, we were assured by the biology lecturers and administrative staff that this was impossible and would likely be impossible forever given the structure of the university and its colleges.

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