Being a student these days seems like a pretty traumatic experience. Students are crippled with debts. They are over-worked and over-stressed. They "can't cope" with the demands of examinations. But it is not the case that we expect more of students than we used to. Rather, students have come to expect far less of themselves.
Consider finance. The prospect of debt is seen to be a major disincentive to entering higher education. The suggestion that students might have to take paid employment is anathema. But the fact that being a student involves rising debts and financial hardship is hardly new - it is an experience with which most of us are all too familiar. Why do we think it beyond the capabilities of students to spend their days in lectures and libraries and a few evenings or weekends earning money? Worse still, why do they think it too much to ask?
Then there are the students who "can't cope" with examinations or deadlines. Stress seems frequently to be accepted as a legitimate reason for deferring such events, while the number of students discovering they have learning difficulties such as dyslexia is ever increasing. It is not that I doubt the reality of their experience - exams cause stress and, given the limitations of our schools, it is hardly surprising many students are poor spellers, slow readers or have difficulty producing a coherent argument. The problem is the framework of meaning within which the experiences are understood. One reason for using examination is precisely that it encourages students to work under pressure and use their stress effectively. Similarly, learning to organise your time efficiently to meet deadlines and overcoming your limitations as a reader or writer are an essential part of the process of higher learning. If that process is to be educational and transformative, it must be one that encourages students to question and challenge not only the world around them but also their own sense of self and their limitations.
Such ideals do not fit well with current educational policy. The government wants 50 per cent of school leavers to go to university but does not seem interested in pushing them intellectually. Instead, the raison d'être of higher education has become the reaffirmation of students' self-esteem and attempts to make the content of courses and the modes of assessment "relevant" and "appropriate" to who and what they are. As we flatter students and treat them like children, they become children who expect to be flattered.
Perhaps it is too much to blame students for the failures of a university system that they simply pass through and whose very meaning has been transformed. The idea of the university as a seat of learning has not only been overwhelmed with the politics of "social inclusion" but has also been undermined by the process of commodification. Institutions are now service providers, students are customers, customers who demand a quantifiable product that educators are obliged to meet. Thus modular courses and predetermined outcomes are what we are supposed to provide, and what students have come to expect. It is very difficult to put students under pressure and push them beyond their limitations if they neither expect nor are prepared to be pushed and challenged.
It is worth remembering that students in the past brought campus life to a standstill by demanding a higher standard of education and a greater expectation on the part of academics. This is only possible when young people understand that education is a struggle, and see themselves as robust individuals who are out to prove themselves to the world. These days students are coming perilously close to living up to the patronising image many in government and education now have of them.
* James Panton. Lecturer in politics, Exeter College, Oxford; Carlyle scholar in the history of ideas, faculty of modern history, University of Oxford
* James Panton will speak at the three-day conference "Ideas, Intellectuals and the Public", organised by Goodenough College and the Institute of Ideas and sponsored by The THES . The meeting will be held at Goodenough College, Mecklenburgh Square, London, June 20-22. Tickets (£30 a day) can be obtained by calling 020 7269 9220.