Students are rebels after all

November 2, 2006

State-led efforts to shape values often have perverse outcomes, says Maria Misra. Just look at the market-savvy Vietnamese

For a few years, I have been one of the interviewers Oxford University sends out to help select international applicants. This year, for the first time, I found myself in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The visit of a British academic was, surprisingly, if gratifyingly, regarded as an exciting event, and I was asked to give a talk to the English-speaking public of the city.

Although "study skills", the topic suggested, did not strike me as the most compelling draw, about 150 young Vietnamese turned up to hear me give the drill on gutting monographs, building arguments and constructing a coherent essay. They sat rapt, scribbling furiously as I maundered on about the nature of style, the importance of vivid illustration and the indispensability of a crisp, yet colourful conclusion.

At the end, a long orderly queue of those seeking more personalised consultations formed, but the questions were basically all the same. Would my tips assist them with their accountancy exams? Could textbooks on international trade be "gutted" in the same manner as historical monographs? It soon transpired that there was not a single humanities student present; there were not even that many economists. At university level, Vietnam's students seem to be heavily concentrated at the more practical end of business studies.

My experience has set me thinking about the differences between the Vietnamese audience and my own students. A survey of British undergraduates has shown that most do not aspire to a career in business. The most desired employer is the BBC, followed by the Civil Service; all of those in the top ten were either public-sector employers, non-governmental organisations or media companies (although those from ethnic minorities had very different preferences). This is not a result I would have predicted. Many British academics are convinced that their students are Margaret Thatcher's children and have become much more commercially minded in recent years. The introduction of tuition fees has increased tutors' fears that students will take a utilitarian view of education, seeing degrees merely as a stepping stone to a well-paid job.

It may be that British students are interested in public-sector jobs for economically sound reasons - the survey revealed that good pensions and long holidays appeal - in contrast to Vietnam, where the state is being cut back and the market is flourishing after the end of communist planning.

Yet perhaps we exaggerate students' obsession with their careers; perhaps they are rebels after all. In Vietnam, after decades of hostility to the market, commerce has become king. And in India, where for years schoolchildren were bombarded with Gandhian exhortations to live the simple life, the country's brightest flock to the infotech sector. This suggests that state-led initiatives to shape values can have perverse outcomes.

China and India, which bang the drum for science, commerce and economics, should perhaps be more cautious. The lesson from Britain, 25 years after the Thatcher revolution, is that far from shaping a nation of thrusting entrepreneurs, the Iron Lady spawned a generation of soft-centred commercophobes.

And if the new Asian giants need further warning, they should look to the US, where the grip of liberal-arts decadence is even more advanced. Unlike Delhi and Beijing, where economics and engineering dominate our interview schedules, in New York it is classics and art history, and the careers of choice are curatorship and academia.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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