Friday, 26 June 2020

University Challenge

I’m seriously considering taking an Open University MSc in engineering, specialising in electrical. If I go for it, it will take eight years, minimum, add nothing to my earning potential and, should I stay the course, I would be graduating some time after my 70th birthday. This is fine and I still intend to be working to at least that age because I’m in the knowledge business and I strive to improve year on year; no idling down to retirement for me. Preparatory to making that decision I am working through some of the many free courses the OU offers while I’m in my last fortnight of lockdown.

I was struck by a massive disparity in the length of time I have been taking to complete certain courses compared to the recommended times. For instance, I have just completed a 40-hour unit in about four hours. Naturally, being a bit of a bighead, I was tempted to scoff and speculate about the quality of undergrads that so much content seemed to be targeted at such low levels of cognition and former education.

But then I stopped and, as I have been trying to educate myself to do for some years now, began to think of reasons, rather than just naysay education generally. See, it can’t be true that kids of today are less intelligent than kids of my vintage, given that brainpower has a massive evolutionary element to it and a baby whisked here from, say, 1000 A.D could almost certainly be raised and completely assimilated into today’s society without any measurable difference from the current native population.

Attitudes, learning, physical prowess, socialisation and general behaviour are mostly, we now know, the products of nurture. The appearance of heredity is given by the unfortunate cycle that condemns kids raised in dysfunctional households to go on to head up more dysfunctional households. Instead of tackling the appalling black hole of aspiration successive societies (government, community leaders, pressure groups and individuals) have ‘progressively’ relaxed the social pressures that our more puritan forebears applied.

It is no longer considered humane to suggest that people should better themselves, that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps; what Victorian nonsense is this? But it isn’t Victorian, it is – or rather, it was – one of the guiding principles of the working class. Parents did not want for their kids what they had endured themselves, but they didn’t expect anything to be handed to them. Work hard, get ahead.

Back to the university business. My generation of working-class kids was really the first to have a genuine chance to attend university in any number; certainly we were the first to see it as a real possibility, rather than a rare entitlement. And although we went up far better tutored in the basics, the real point of university – and one which, I freely admit, was lost on me – was to broaden one’s horizons. The degree, while a stepping-stone to better careers, was in some cases almost secondary, certainly in the burgeoning ‘new’ disciplines.

Most students weren’t and aren’t activists. Most are getting on, using what they have to the best of their abilities – which includes attention span, competing demands and all the rest – to try and better themselves. (Or is that a pejorative phrase nowadays?) But I believe there is a significant and growing proportion of students, at establishments which actively facilitate it, whose entire raison d’être is to challenge the structure of society itself. They attend pre-radicalised and use universities and many tutors as a base for inevitably left-wing activist causes.

This is a gross misuse of education facilities and resources and dilutes the objectivity and purpose of higher education. When I last attended a university full time (1999-2000 MSc) this was already apparent, but I fear it has slipped further. Maybe it is time to stop pretending that every school-leaver is university material? Maybe it is time to recognise that the various degrees whose title ends in ‘studies’ (Black Studies, Women’s Studies and so on) are vanity courses with little positive to add to the national experience?

Time, once again, to have that conversation; what is the purpose of higher education and to what extent should it be publicly funded? How about this: state assistance and grants for universities which specialise in science, engineering, medicine and other essential and necessarily elite disciplines. Funded polytechnics for business studies, technical diplomas and the like. Specialist art and music colleges with funding for the genuinely talented. Tech colleges for all the skills, again funded.

Given that very few student loans are repaid at all, we fund higher education anyway, but why should we fund those whose sole purpose is to cause trouble, to demand special treatment, to set black against white, gay against straight, gender against… everything else? How about zero funding for Universities of ‘Studies’? Let them fund themselves and let’s have that funding right out in the open. If you want to wage war on the state, then do it on your own dime.

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