I had to go to an open day last week to talk about why students should opt for this place rather than for any other university. These events have grown steadily in the years I’ve been working here, so that now they are carefully planned and staged, and we are all given briefings about how to present ourselves. This year, we had dress-code advice too; we have to “look professional so as to match the expectations of prospective students and their families”. How they get these expectations I can’t think, since the scruffy academic has been the norm for decades, but I suppose it comes from watching too many repeats of Inspector Morse in which academics tend to swan around imaginary Oxbridge common rooms looking elegantly effete.
Warning us about what to wear is a new development; previous training sessions have merely focused on advising us how not to alienate pushy parents, because boy, are some of them pushy! You’d think it was the parents who were choosing a degree, not their offspring who trail along behind them, looking bored and embarrassed in that sullen teenage way that is so instantly recognisable. When I started out, nobody would have been seen dead going along to check out a university course with Mum or Dad in tow, but this generation seem to regard it as normal. And the scare stories in the media about students being taught only two hours a week and leaving with tens of thousands of pounds in debts have clearly struck a chord. Dads ask questions about how many hours of teaching can be expected and what sort of jobs are available when it’s all over, while Mums do the interrogation about what the halls of residence are like and how much the whole show is going to cost. Or vice versa. They all seem to operate as interrogation teams, and the lone Mums often bring a formidable Granny or, worst of all, an auntie or two, and their questioning can make you wonder whether they’ve had CIA training at some point in their past.
Last week, with all the news about MPs fiddling their expenses, we were grilled more than I can ever remember. Clearly, distrust of the public sector has now reached epidemic proportions. Not that there’s much cash to fiddle in the university world, but that doesn’t stop people being suspicious. The fiddling in universities is not so much financial, it’s about misleading students and conning them into believing that a degree is a passport to instant success. All that hype about getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education was never followed by the funding to make it happen, but most people outside universities don’t know that. Nor do they know much about the dropout rates, as students who should never have been encouraged to take out a loan and try their hand at studying something they don’t give a toss about realise that there is a world outside the classroom and opt for it.
This year, perhaps with the weight of being described as head of history on my shoulders (acting head, actually, since Brian the Anxious is busy doing up his garden while claiming to be too stressed to work), I found myself feeling sympathetic towards the families sitting in the one lecture theatre that has actually been refurbished and waiting to be told how a degree in history would lead to a vibrant future. I had Brian’s notes about the value of our subject in today’s world (“ to understand where we are going, we need to know where we have come from”) and about how we encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds. He’s always saying this, but I can’t for the life of me tell a student from a sink school apart from one from Eton – they all wear the same clothes, talk in the same strangled accents and try to do the minimal amount of work at the very last minute. They all have fancy mobile phones that they fail to switch off when you’re talking to them, and after cheap beer nights they all smell of stale food and sweaty unwashed clothes, with a hint of vomit as an undernote.
But this year, what nobody knows yet is that universities have been warned not to take any students over their allotted quotas or risk fines. Yes, the same ministers who voted for the 50 per cent figure have also decreed that universities will be punished if we take on extra numbers. Come August, when the A-level results are out, thousands of students will not get the places they want and the howls of protest will be heard across the land. MPs fiddling their expenses is the sin that has hit the headlines, but the betrayal of a generation with false promises of education, education, education is even worse.
If only I thought there were some intelligent alternative plans for the future of higher education somewhere!