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The International Writers Magazine: An Education

Changing Higher Education
Marcel D'Agneau
The culling has begun. As many as 5 or maybe 6000 teaching and admin staff are about to take ‘voluntary redundancy’ in the UK.  This at a time when the numbers of students actually going to University is rising. By quite a substantial number.

Henry Brooks Adams:
Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.

Of course if high school students were a little less narrowly focussed on getting their A Levels and AS Levels all in a row, they would be asking themselves as to why on earth they are bothering.  They will be going to Universities and Colleges that have less teaching staff so there will be bigger class sizes and if my local University is anything to go by, all the people going are all the experienced staff – in particular the ones who actually care about students.  These people are often the exactly the kind of people the Universities are keen to be rid off precisely because they do care about student experience and the purpose of higher education.  The staff who will stay are quite often (but not all) pretty good at paperwork, PowerPoint, meetings, targets and are the perfect product of a PGCE system that teaches nothing about ‘presentation, engagement, excitement, professional practice’,  They may be new, but they will not inspire.  Inspiration is not on the curriculum.
            Why do kids go to University? For the cheap booze? The cheap sex?   Well that’s half the reason I guess and was ever thus.  But if it was for the great library the institution boasts, then surely pretty much everything they need is already on Google?
Besides a survey by local own library staff discovered that 72% of computer time was actually spent on Facebook.
            If students come for the sport, or other activities, well good.  But is it worth getting into debt for? (Around £20,000 at the current fees and set to rise whoever wins the election.)  Is there perhaps another way to gain skills, impress a future employer?  Wouldn’t a gap year where you actually do something for real and can prove it with a documentary filmed on your iphone be more useful?  Couldn’t you spend the same £20,000 or $30000 on a start-up company?  Hell, use Facebook to find some like-minded high-school grads with great scores and start a business or a theatre company or anything, stick at it, become visible on YouTube or whatever and you’ll be discovered way faster than going to a middle-ranking University or Art School which no one is impressed by anyway.  If you can’t get into the top twenty institutions, why bother at all?
            Ok, you want to be a Doctor or Space Scientist and this option isn’t open to you.  Worse, if you don’t have a degree no one will let you onto a Cert Ed course or Master’s programme or PhD. 
            But even here, with small money and some software in the cloud, you could probably design a rocket, certainly use the web to learn a whole lot of medical stuff. Perhaps there is room on the market to set up accelerated degrees where you cut out the drinking and the sports (though not the sex, let’s not go crazy) and you just focus on what you need to learn.  Fast.  Better yet, you don’t have to do all those other crappy little modules they make you learn to fill out the degree that is of absolutely no use to you.  A two year degree of ten months each year of intensive study (with no breaks save bank holidays and Christmas) followed by a one year specialism for an MA or two years if you want to medicine or psychiatry – actually spent in a community hospital or third-world clinic or more. Think of the money you'd save.

We need a 21st Century attitude to higher education.  Information is everywhere and Universities and Colleges are no long the guardians of knowledge.  It’s out there.  All you have to do is find it.

            I didn’t start off in a conventional way.  I went to film school – quickly realised what a rip-off it was and starting writing scripts and sending them out. Getting rejects was my education.  Sometimes getting near misses was getting a real education and don’t ask me how, but ending up writing for radio and publishing instead of film was entirely my own fault.  Only later did I decide on an MA and more post-grad study and then I discovered that I was being taught by people who knew nothing about how the world really works.  Lecturers who haven’t worked in the industry they are teaching about are worse than useless to you.  All they are doing is feathering their own nest, writing utterly pointless ‘academic’ books on screenwriting or theatre or literary criticism that no one buys or wants or reads.
            If you must go to University, go to one where the staff have a reputation in industry (whatever industry you want to go to) finance, publishing, film, art, it doesn’t matter.  They may be there because existing as an artist or writer for example is truly hard and being a lecturer is truly easy.  Can’t criticise them for wanting to live a normal life.  But as long as they give you, the student, 100% of their experience and can help you get your own career started, then it will be worth it.  There are people like that.  I know some.  Most of them are leaving teaching now, as they know that that world is going.  The Gradgrinds in Management want big class sizes, huge lectures, easy to mark and measure essays.  They don’t want ‘personal’ tuition or dedication from teaching staff because it’s cheaper to lock the building up or make more students go on-line and everyone have an online chat experience between 10 and 12 on a Thursday with your tutor whom you will never see in person and he or she will never see you. They may not even be in the same city.  Neither of you will ever realise that each could be inspiring the other.  It won’t happen. Inspiration is all so old school.
            If you have to go to College, then choose wisely.  If your grades don’t get you into the institution of your choice, don’t go to the second best.  Rethink.  Find others like you.  Could you go it alone?  Is there a solution at your fingertips as in my earlier suggestion?  Have you thought about going abroad?  Check out the work ethic at UBC in Vancouver or UCT in Cape Town for example.  Students I’ve met seem to get a heck of a lot more out of their Uni’s there than in the UK.  It’s not the end of the world not to get in.  It might be the start of a whole new life.
            Ask someone who graduated last year if they have a job yet.  Maybe it’s time to think about getting some practical skills ready for the next upturn.
            Just food for thought. That’s all folks.
© M D’Agneau May 2010
Marcel D'Agneau has been a writer and teacher for many years

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