Me-me-me monsters in our midst

January 17, 1997

I should like to add my voice to those who are recognising an unfortunate sea change in attitude among undergraduates. I am not an aged educational elitist: I am 30 years old, and my research into higher education has led me to conclude that education serves the common good and everyone who is able to benefit should have the opportunity to do so. "Benefit" should not be taken as an instrumental definition here, as in the ability to get on to a managerial fast-track programme or suchlike. Even if the only effect of a university education is to make the individual happy, then I believe this to be a valid end in itself.

I have found teaching a rewarding career, and the significant minority of diligent students a joy to work with. The source of my problem is the application of the free market to higher education, and the consequent consumer culture. The "customer-led" revolution has not, as apparently hoped, created a new breed of undergraduate who will shop around for his/her ideal course and work hard and enthusiastically for his/her desired degree. Instead we have a generation of undergraduates whose sole motivation is "what's in it for me?" The "free market" needs to be removed from the sector, as the slavish devotion to market forces benefits absolutely no one.

Today, in the post-Thatcher era, we are seeing the cultural fall-out of Thatcherite policies in the flesh-and-blood forms of our undergraduate students. These children of the late 1970s have known nothing other than the philosophy of "I want, I want, I want" and "give me, give me, give me". This me-me-me philosophy has been coupled with, first, the devaluing and, second, the cutting of the student grant to below breadline levels. Yet, far from creating an Ian Beale-esque mindset whereby one works as hard as one can to achieve one's own (selfish) goals, we now have a generation of students who think that a 2:1 is their birthright.

If tutors and examiners expect them to work for a 2:1 they view that as an insult to their (supposedly very high) intelligence. I have lost track of the number of students who greet me with the question ". . . is this going to be in the exam?" with the implied follow-on "and if it is not then why should I learn it?" This is what a student recently described as the "Jungle Book" method - doing the bare necessities. And of course these are the same students who are scathing about people reading "useless" subjects, or who will not be directly using their degrees upon graduation. They completely disregard the fact that many of these people (especially mature students) have far more valid reasons for studying than they do.

What we are witnessing is an overestimation of the value of a degree coupled with an underestimation of the value of an education. Trying to get students to read widely for an essay (much less for tutorials) is increasingly an exercise in futility: students come to tutorials singularly ill-prepared, expecting to be told "the right answers" so that they are spared the sordid task of having to think for themselves. Of course, when it comes to getting their essays back, a low mark is taken as being evidence that the tutor is too ignorant to understand them, or of the grossest bad form in not giving them a "feel-good" mark. When their lack of motivation and effort is reflected in poor exam results (the only benchmark they appear to respect) it is the tutors, rather than themselves, whom they blame.

We are already beginning to see a litigiousness among young adults regarding their perceived treatment at the hands of their schools. Are we soon to witness lower second-class graduates suing their universities for not giving them the first-class honours they feel entitled to as paying customers? Whatever shade of government we have in 1997 is going to have to deal with the present crisis in the university sector, and this consumerist culture among students can only make matters worse.

I am quite prepared to spend as long as is necessary coaxing the best out of diligent, hardworking and keen students (it is one of my life's greatest pleasures) but I resent wasting time on people who are not interested in a word I say and do not care about their studies enough even to open a book once in a while. Not to mention the students who pay lip-service to scholarliness by asking for help and then fail to keep their appointments with me (a monotonously regular occurrence).

Turning students into customers has not made them into forward-thinking bright young people maximising their potential; it has created a generation of sloths who expect to be served a degree for the minimum of exertion and with the minimum of interference from academics while they get on with the truly "important" things in life - night clubs, soap operas, football and the pursuit of their next hangover.

Andrew Marks is a part-time lecturer at Liverpool Hope University College and a PhD student at Liverpool University.

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