Leader: Fast food does not nourish

As universities rush to provide value for money, something more precious - the time to think and digest ideas - could be lost

May 17, 2012

Jamie Oliver hit the jackpot with his cookbook Jamie's 30-Minute Meals, which became the UK's fastest-selling non-fiction hardback of all time in the 10 weeks after its release.

The formula was so successful, in fact, that an even speedier follow-up, Jamie's 15-Minute Meals, is being released this autumn.

For the average home cook, it seems, fast food is good, but faster food is better, and the feeling that time is in increasingly short supply is applicable to most areas of modern life.

In our cover feature, Tom Palaima, Raymond F. Dickson centennial professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, takes a long view of his family's history, from his grandparents' emigration to America in the early 1900s, to his father's military service in the 1940s and the transformative effect of the GI Bill for returning soldiers.

Although his dad did not take up the bill's offer of a university education, Palaima links the mortgage facilities it provided to the schooling he received alongside the children of white-collar families, which in turn transformed his own life chances.

His story charts the ways in which opportunities and choices often have roots stretching back over generations. It also provides a foundation for discussion of how time today is used, or wasted, in higher education.

Palaima argues that students must be given the time and encouragement to suspend the concerns of everyday life in order to have and share thoughts as they develop.

The problem is that this is no longer a priority, with fees-based funding models driving an increase in part-time work and the commoditisation of degrees putting the emphasis firmly on "value for money".

Fundamentally, Palaima argues, the average American "cannot tolerate the fact that our own children, or worse yet, someone else's, should have public or private support to spend four years learning about themselves ... without constantly being held accountable for their time".

The use of time in universities is also addressed in a new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute, which looks at the academic experience of students in England.

The study, a repeat of surveys carried out in 2006 and 2007, examines both formal contact hours and private study.

One difference today is that increasing numbers of institutions are publishing details about what students can expect in terms of contact hours. But while this is to be welcomed, the importance of private study must not be undersold.

The government has insisted that the quid pro quo for higher fees is that students will get more, but it is vital that universities hold firm to the principle that a degree is not a financial transaction and requires an investment of time as well as money.

Yet this week, the National Union of Students claimed that two-thirds of undergraduates aged 21 to 24 regularly worry about not having enough money to cover basic living costs. If this is so, there is a real onus on institutions to ensure that students have sufficient cash support rather than focusing excessively on the fee waivers sought by the government.

For many, such financial support is likely to be an essential prerequisite for the process of scholarly development described by Palaima.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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