Why I... think universities are becoming anti-intellectual

January 26, 2001

Last November I received a visit from Rosa, a first-year sociology undergraduate from another university. Rosa told me that she was looking to transfer to a different sociology department and wanted to know whether this was a realistic option. As such requests have become increasingly common, I was not particularly surprised.

I was, however, taken aback by her reason for wanting to change institutions. "I just don't fit in with the other students," she stated. This surprised me. She looked and sounded confident, competent and articulate. Then came something of a bombshell. With more than a hint of anger, Rosa told me: "There is no point going to seminars at my university since nothing worthwhile ever gets discussed or resolved. You are also regarded as bit odd if you read books."

Since my conversation with Rosa, I have talked to several university students who confirm that they almost never discuss books or ideas with their peers. They are all genuinely disappointed that so little is demanded of them and that they are so infrequently challenged intellectually. As far as they are concerned, their learning experience revolves around the "handout" and they feel patronised by a system that regards them as little more than elderly schoolchildren.

The Student Living Report , a survey published by MORI last week, indicates that their experience is far from rare. According to this comprehensive quantitative survey of full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students, something like four out of ten students indicated that their courses did not stretch them intellectually. It is unlikely that 40 per cent of undergraduates feel as intensely about their predicament as Rosa, but the fact that such a significant proportion of British students recognise that they are not being stretched expresses a serious indictment of the ethos of philistinism that prevails across the higher education sector.

One reason why bright and curious undergraduates are frequently not stretched is because the system of higher education rarely provides them with an opportunity to explore ideas. University education is increasingly associated with the gaining of qualifications. There is nothing unusual about that. The provision of qualifications has always been an important feature of academic life.

But what has changed is that the supplying of qualifications has become increasingly disassociated from the objective of encouraging the pursuit of intellectual interest in an academic subject.

Short-sighted pragmatism has encouraged a style of teaching and learning that is so focused on credentials that it is losing its capacity to develop students intellect-ually.

This approach clearly influences the way students understand what university life is all about. MORI's survey highlights this trend. According to the poll, only 21 per cent of the respondents indicated that the reason they had gone to university was "to learn more about the subjects" in which they were interested.

Most of the students said they had gone to university to "gain qualifications" or to improve their chances of "getting a good job".

So what is to become of people such as Rosa? The MORI survey suggests that we now have very different types of students looking for very different things from the same institution.

Maybe the time has come for some institutional differentiation. Yes, we need qualification factories, but we also need institutions whose mission is to stretch their students.

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