Why I think universities should ditch teaching

November 23, 2001

The degree course used to strike me as a contract. They want to learn. We want to teach. Money is exchanged for wisdom imparted. In fact, in America this ancient symbiosis has become so explicitly contractual of late that I gather the teacher can now be sued if a student fails his course.

As someone who lectures only occasionally, I always bounce along to whichever college wants me in the naive belief that I will give and they will receive and that at the end of 50 minutes the world will be a wiser place.

But, say friends who have what these days pass for permanent jobs at various British universities, this is simplistic. None of these PhDs has any wish to teach. In fact, they would rather have nothing whatsoever to do with the student body, a body that is often unwashed, hung over and exhausted from working all night stacking shelves in Tesco. Indeed, I gather that these days the worst thing that can happen to academics is to have their job redesignated "a teaching post".

Teaching is Siberia, the infinitely bleak internal exile of academia. No kudos attaches to those who burn the midnight halogen lamps marking essays. One friend said she had a special look for an undergraduate who shuffles in to explain that he has been unable to deliver 2,000 words "because I was sittin' in front of the telly all day". The expression cultivates sternness to disguise the huge sense of relief that floods her at the prospect of one less piece of regurgitated nonsense to assess.

I had always thought that cynicism extended only to the senior common room. Recently, however, a report commissioned by the mobile telephone company Orange revealed that 41 per cent of males and 50 per cent of females starting university this year claimed that drinking, clubbing and sex were what they were most looking forward to at university. Only 8 per cent embarked on tertiary education with anything approaching a keenness to learn.

We are left then with the bizarre spectacle of two wholly mismatched groups of people locked together for three years in a curious dance of deception: teachers, the majority of whom don't want to teach, and students, the majority of whom don't want to learn. Would it not be a great relief to all concerned if we blew the lid off this sham and let universities be what people on campus actually want them to be?

Academics would receive a monthly sum, most of which would be spent on paying their mortgages, with the rest being put into pet research projects, while students would hand over their "tuition fees" as the price of admission to the greatest party scene in town. Renaming the junior common room Club 18-21 and the SCR "Dunteachin" would be acts of simple honesty.

For those who object to this plan by saying that education at a university is vital if young people are to get good jobs, I would point to another rather alarming recent survey. This showed that media studies was the course most likely to guarantee a job in the 21st century. And what is media studies about? Sitting down in front of the telly all day.

Adrian Mourby
Author and occasional lecturer in creative writing
Cardiff University

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