Ruth Scurr

July 28, 2006

In the summer of 1990, after a year of English at Oxford, I was lying about reading A. S. Byatt's new novel Possession when I suddenly realised that for the first time since starting university I was really enjoying a work of fiction. Studying literature was killing it for me. So I resolved to switch into the second year of politics, philosophy and economics. It had never occurred to me to apply from a state school to read something as difficult-sounding as PPE, but after three terms of looking over the shoulders of my boyfriends I knew I could conduct a conversation about The Communist Manifesto with the best of them. Then came that sunny afternoon with Byatt for company.

This is the time of year when many students consider changing course. Typically at the end of their first undergraduate year, as I was, they may have received some recent exam results, they will have packed up their books and gone off for the summer to lie on a beach or to work in a boring job. And then that niggling question can become an obsession: am I studying the right subject?

Changers are extremely various: like all humans, their individual motives range from the disreputable to the deeply admirable. There are those disappointed with their first-year performance hoping to find an easier degree; those seeking roundabout admission to a more difficult or competitive subject than the one they originally applied for; those disillusioned with the quality of the teaching or the content of their course - it isn't how it seemed in the prospectus; and last, but by no means least, those who have glimpsed through friends and gossip a subject far more fascinating than their own.

Naturally, I have instinctive sympathy for Changers, but they are always an administrative nuisance. Now, more than ever, understaffed faculties need to keep admission numbers down so that teaching resources, already pushed to the limit, are not stretched even further. One Changer can almost always be absorbed - there may, after, all be someone changing out of the subject as well as someone changing in - but what about ten? In circumstances where there is high demand, how is it possible to adjudicate which Changers are to be admitted and which not?

In my own case, the PPE tutors resorted to an admissions interview of the kind I would have faced if I'd had the courage and know-how to apply from school. It was a full, gruelling half hour and was by no means a formality.

Only with hindsight do I realise the generosity of those tutors - they had barely escaped from marking piles of exam scripts, their precious summer research period was already slipping away, they had an infinite number of things more alluring to do than reconvene mid-summer for an extraordinary admissions interview. Yet they did, because that's how seriously they took my decision - even more seriously than I did at the time.

I have colleagues much less sympathetic to Changers than I am. They are not illiberal reactionaries who think students have made their beds and must lie in them. They are reflective people who argue that students are offered places to study subjects that they have displayed aptitude for. These are complex judgments, and there is good reason to believe that the professionals making them have more experience and information than the student concerned. Therefore, it is sensible to make every effort to encourage someone to continue with the course for which they have been chosen and in which they have invested a year's work, and to strongly discourage them from becoming a Changer.

I agree that the obstacles should be high, but they should not be insurmountable. In our system of higher education it is indeed a momentous gamble to switch course and find oneself galloping towards finals on the strength of one or two years' work in an unfamiliar subject. Contemporaries of mine still tell me they envied my determination to change subject and might have done so themselves had they been braver or received more encouragement. To which the only honest answer is: you don't know how hard it is until you've done it.

Changers have to work to catch up, to prove themselves on new terrain and reassure themselves they've made the right decision. It is a flamboyant thing to do and one that can affect the rest of your life. Impartial advice is hard to find, and it is difficult to dismiss the "better the devil you know" argument when it is backed up by institutional reservations and tutorial scepticism. I think that anyone who can overcome all that is a born Changer and deserves a place in a new subject. Personally, I have no regrets. For me, Possession marked the beginning of a freer relationship with literature and a more ambitious approach to academic life.

Ruth Scurr is affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and director of studies in social and political sciences at Gonville and Caius College.

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