Leader: Errors that truly merit derision

In denigrating students, devaluing teachers and equating degrees with big salaries, the media and the Government damage society

September 4, 2008

Students have always made mistakes. Even Plato probably made a few cock-ups that caused Socrates to raise an eyebrow or two. For many years, Times Higher Education invited readers to contribute their favourite student exam howlers to give everyone a little light relief after the tumult of a heavy exam period. In the same way as doctors use black humour to help them do what is often a grim job, academics have to be able to let off steam in their own space after a gruelling few weeks of marking.

But it seems that those were more innocent and less political times, and it was a shame this year when we revived the competition only to find that these amusing mistakes were picked up by a national media obsessed with dumbing down and used as just another stick with which to beat an overtested, overdrawn and overburdened generation of students, making them well and truly the "escape goats" of the winning entry.

To err may be human, but to correct is humane. Making mistakes is an important part of learning, and students need to feel that they can do so without fear and be then put right by a caring and challenging teacher who has a true concern for their education and a passion for what they do. "To be thought to have those qualities made me feel a spark tingle to my bones" is how Tom Palaima, professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, describes it in the introductory essay in our new series focusing on teaching.

If the qualities that make a good teacher are a gift, for students to receive their education from such people is, according to Professor Palaima, "a rare blessing" - especially when they consider that "they will never have the cultural and intellectual riches of a university at their disposal in the same way again". But views such as his are incompatible with a credo that demands that what a fee-paying consumer must get from a course are the skills sought by employers, not intellectual stimulation and a schooling in values that can enhance the life not only of the individual concerned but also that of others. In the US, as long as ten years ago, The New York Times was dubbing institutions doing just this "employment credentialling stations".

This week's Sunday Times reported a study published earlier this year by Francis Green, professor of economics at the University of Kent, that says that one third of graduates are receiving no financial value from their degree. Many students are now questioning whether it was worth their while to go to university at all, according to the newspaper.

Inevitably, such conclusions so presented further an agenda that belittles the accomplishments of the mass expansion of higher education and seeks to turn the clock back to a time when university education was the preserve of a small elite. To evaluate what students attain in purely monetary terms is too crude. What they have in fact received is priceless.

If, as Professor Palaima says, America has reduced its universities to mere educational shopping malls and has "virtually stopped nurturing the civic, social and moral values of general students, most of whom are at the critical transitional stage into adult citizenship", the situation here in the UK is sadly no better. The Government, by monetising the value of a degree to demonstrate its worth (£120,000 over a lifetime), has made an error that puts any student howler to shame, and as a society we are all the poorer for that.

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