Graduation from what?

They may have got their degrees - but after three years of teaching gimmicks and lectures about 'transferable work skills', it is little wonder some students had little to celebrate on graduation day.

Patrick Hayes

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Topics Politics

Graduation – that glorious day when students can finally stop stressing about exams, dress up in gowns, celebrate three years of achievement, and emerge into the ‘real’ world of opportunity beyond the ivory towers.

Well, that’s the rhetoric at least, as I discovered at my graduation from the University of Warwick (first-class BA in philosophy) in July. But talking to some of my fellow graduates, it seemed that the traditional sense of optimism about life after a degree was not shared by those receiving the degrees.

Ironically, this seemed to be a result of there being too much emphasis on attaining ‘transferable work skills’ and being prepared for a career – diminishing the ideal of the university.

‘Everybody is expected to go to university now’, says Alex, 21, who has just graduated with a 2:1 from the University of East London. ‘The idea that a degree is a huge achievement seems to have vanished – it appears a necessity for getting a half-decent job…in the same fashion as getting GCSEs or A-levels.’ Indeed, New Labour’s pledge to get 50 percent of young adults into university education appears to have decreased the value of degrees in the eyes of both the public and students.

Students are perhaps the worst people to ask whether they believe university standards are declining. What right-thinking student would complain that his exams are too easy and the grading not tough enough? Yet there does seem to be a consensus that even if you put in a minimal amount of work you can attain a 2:1: ‘Everybody says they give out 2:1s like sweets’, says Emma, 23, a graduate in film and drama. ‘Firsts are still very tough to get and it seems unfair that 2:1s cover such a broad spectrum of ability.’

As a member of the staff-student liaison committee at Warwick last year, I talked to a lot of students about their courses and how they might be improved. In general, the students thought they weren’t the right people to dictate what the courses should be like or how they should be graded. The idea that since the introduction of tuition fees students see their degree as a ‘product’ is a view more commonly held by lecturers than by students. Indeed, all the finalists in our department were invited to a university talk last term about how to sell ourselves to employers and telling us what ‘transferable skills’ we should have picked up during our degree course.

During my final year, a number of ideas were floated by the university about how best to capture the students’ attention – through using over-head projectors (there’s a radical idea), the internet, and class handouts. But such gimmicks are a poor substitute for inspiring teaching. The only good argument I heard in favour of handouts came from an honest student who pointed out that ‘lecturers who use them usually do nothing more than read them out in class…in which case I’d rather stay in bed and read them myself’.

The best lectures – during which students seem to have learned the most – were those where the lecturer treated students like adults. One of my best university experiences was a series of lectures on the philosophy of logic given by the late Karl Popper’s research assistant, David Miller. By not talking down to us or making compromises to ‘ease us in’, Miller presented glimpses of the cutting edge of his subject, making any over-head projector or PowerPoint presentation seem dull and robotic by comparison.

I have often heard fellow students say that getting a degree is about ‘playing the game’ and doing what the university expects of you in a ‘tick box’ fashion. Which might explain why many students seemed dissatisfied with their achievement on graduation day – after all, ‘playing the game’ only takes place on a superficial level, avoiding any depth of interaction with the issues arising in their courses.

Students often still desire to be challenged – but the best way to stimulate them is not by pandering to what they want (or what the university thinks they want) through gimmicks and talk of ‘transferable work skills’. Giving students examples of academic excellence is far more likely to make them realise what they can actually achieve and to help them realise their potential.

And that would be something really worth celebrating on graduation day.

Read on:

The classless university, by Jennie Bristow

AS good?, by David Perks

The key to skills, by Alex Standish

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Topics Politics

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