Bite-sized chunks stick in the throat

April 21, 1995

Before I began my humanities degree, I had some vague but heart-felt notion that I wanted to return to education to "improve" myself and in some sense I believed that my course could give me more understanding of my world. After a long series of monotonous jobs, I longed for study time set aside to work with ideas. I even felt proud of my culture for respecting the notion of personal development enough to allow people to spend three whole years doing a non-vocational course. Not any more.

Now well into my second year I am beginning to wonder if universities have ever embraced such values, or merely allowed them to thrive by default for a short period which is now over. That is not to say that good education and dedicated students and staff do not still exist, but that they operate in an increasingly hostile context.

As I began my studies, universities were undergoing huge structural changes to do with modularisation and semesterisation, which nobody, from lab technicians to professors, appeared to want. When I asked why they were happening I would be told something along the lines of "well all the other universities are changing, so to be competitive we have to too".

This seemed to presuppose that students would inevitably prefer the greater flexibility and choice of the new system, and indeed at first, I and friends were fooled. However, as we began to think through the implications the more concerned we became.

We began to ask ourselves if changes were occurring concurrently with grant cuts and expansion because they could pave the way for American-style mix-and-match, pay-as-you-learn schemes, allowing for rushed two-year courses instead of government-funded three-year courses.

We also felt that the new model could easily exacerbate rootlessness and stress among students as mid-year swapping between departments and even campuses could become standard and assessment continual. Other worries centred around quality. Short, easily assessable independent study units could reduce our learning to the ingestion and revision of bite-sized chunks of fast food instead of a cumulative and creative experiment with ideas.

Moreover, with everything assessed and examined, students would be being subtly encouraged to opt for unchallenging, familiar-sounding courses, rendering difficult courses unpopular and thus uncompetitive. In any case minority interests would be threatened in a free market.

Many of us began to feel distinctly uneasy and indignant that degree schemes were being introduced that promoted national homogeneity (inevitably pitched low because of the pass/fail structure and the necessity for every student to pass every module), over and above the diversity and vitality necessary for intellectual stimulus or breakthroughs. Such courses might suit employers but where is the educational merit? What appeared to offer choice and flexibility began to seem like a recipe for less variety and a lot of fragmentation.

What prevailed, however, was sense of betrayal. Surely any system purporting to hold democratic values, and to make changes in the name of student choice, should at least be keeping us informed and encouraging free debate? Surely universities should be more interested in maintaining quality education - by vigorous defence if necessary - than in pandering to outside pressure.

Meanwhile, as tutors became more implicated in a system not of their choosing, taking a break from increased workloads to take stock of what had happened and where we were heading appeared to be an unpopular priority, replaced by careful euphemisms and nervous back-watching.

To counter this sad and apathetic status quo, a small group of students and friends have since been trying to help each other to stay informed, with discussion and article swapping.

We have begun to ask the underlying and broader meta-educational questions. Most fundamental of these has been the simple, but ridiculously neglected question "What is education for?" This is why we have decided to organise a conference with that title.

We hope to address the issue of how educational ideals become corrupted within institutions, and how we can hold on to our motivations for studying within a system which encourages certificates and employability as a substitute for any genuine communication or meetings of minds or needs.

The best part of the old liberal vision of education, for all its secret paternalism and exclusivity, was the idea of an intellectual community.With rampant commercialism, vocationalism, and managerialism that is ever more doomed, but if we are aware of what was good about such a concept, we can think about bringing it about in a viable form. In the meantime we should bear in mind Bertrand Russell's warning: "The greatest threat to education is the educational institution."

Perhaps that is why the people we have been most eager to invite to our conference, such as Ivan Illich, Doris Lessing and James Kelman, have all placed themselves firmly on the outside of institutions.

Kathy Symonds is a second-year student at the University of Bradford.

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