Their ships have sailed

It’s not so much the dropouts who vex Gloria Monday, more the drop-ins who have no business on campus

March 31, 2008

I was on my way for a drink at the end of a more trying day than usual when I ran into one of my students lining up pints at the bar. Nothing odd about that, you might think, except that I had barely set eyes on him for weeks, and every time he’d slunk into a seminar he would just sit in blank, bored silence. I’d run through my repertoire of tactics to get him to open his mouth, trying everything from the teasing question to the academic sneer, which I’ve learnt from colleagues in English departments who seem to be particularly good at it. But nothing worked. Just ignore him, he’s all right, was the view of the rest of seminar group – so I did, and he disappeared. Now here he was, the life and soul of the pub, so cheerful that he offered to buy me a drink as soon as he saw me.

Naturally I accepted, since he appeared to have more to spend on booze than I did, to judge by the wad of notes he pulled out of his designer-jacket pocket. I asked what the celebration was about. “Getting out of this dump,” was the short answer. He was off, he said, and wasn’t coming back. Ever. “Another dropout statistic,” muttered a colleague who was watching this display, making his half pint last as long as he could, a remark that reminded me of the training I had been through that was supposed to help me a) spot the ones who were about to drop out and b) try to talk them out of it.

Every few months I find myself being trained for something. I’ve been offered training in areas such as equal opportunities, leadership (Ha!), personal tutoring, bereavement counselling (thankfully used only once, when someone’s cat was run over the day before an essay deadline) and how to prevent students dropping out, otherwise titled “Making the Elusive Decisive”. That one was run by Cape, the registrar’s latest invention, our new Centre for Academic and Personal Enhancement, and was a waste of money if ever there was one. Making the elusive decisive turned out to be about why we shouldn’t use insensitive language. Nobody drops out these days, they make alternative life choices, and if the objective of a university education seems somewhat elusive, we have to encourage our students to make a firm choice and render that elusive decisive, by persuading them to stay on and finish their degree.

The woman who appeared to run, sorry, facilitate, the training session in front of a slide of the new Cape logo trilled on about helping student mariners in danger of shipwreck. “Think of Good Hope,” she urged, “we are the Cape of Good Hope for all those students who have lost their way and are struggling with their elusive anxieties.” The logo was presumably intended to have some kind of geographical significance, but looked more like a large nose sunk in a bowl of soup than any promontory I’ve ever seen.

The mariner in danger of shipwreck theme was milked till the pips squeaked. We were the people who could offer sinking students hope of salvation. Clearly, our facilitator never read anything about the early years of the British navy when anyone trying to buck an order was flogged, the crew were permanently drunk and the only good hope around was when you’d come through a storm without sinking.

I asked the dropping-out student what had made his elusive decisive. He didn’t hesitate: he hated the university, hated the course, hated the town, hated his tutors (me, too, I suppose, though I didn’t press him on this point), hated being poor and couldn’t see the point in hanging around any longer writing essays on daft gits like Oliver Cromwell. All in all, it was a miracle that he’d lasted six months, though he admitted that he had a lot of good mates and that the night life wasn’t bad. Did he need to jack up 12 or so grand in debts to go and listen to some boring old farts who didn’t even know his name? No way, he was off to Manchester, where his uncle was a builder and could guarantee him a good job. His uncle, he added, owned villas in Spain, France and Portugal, had left school at 16 and didn’t have a GCSE to his name, let alone a degree, though he did have a couple of racehorses and a collection of contemporary artworks that Charles Saatchi might have envied, to judge by the photos that were being passed round the bar.

I stood him a drink in return and wished him well. Apparently one in four students drops out like him in the first year of their studies, and no amount of training is going to make many inroads into those figures. The elusive question, of course, is not why so many are giving up on university as a waste of their time and money, but why so many are there in the first place when we don’t have the rooms, the people or the means to teach them. That question, I suspect, is going to remain unanswered indefinitely.

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