20 November 1996
The poverty of student life
The following is the text of a leaflet put out by Living Marxism in
response to two days of action by university staff and students in the UK.
Campaign for the Highest Education
All students want more money and why shouldn't we? The added burdens of
shrinking grants, student debt and now, possibly, tuition fees, can only
detract from student life. Education should, of course, be free. But
education should, as well, be worth having in the first place.
Today, more people than ever before are going to university. One in three
young people now attend a higher education establishment. Over 70 per cent
of 16-year olds are now staying on for further or higher education.
Education is in danger of becoming a substitute for the Youth Training
Scheme. The obsession of politicians with education has become a substitute
for actually doing anything about improving the jobs market. Nobody will
guarantee full time jobs but everybody is quite happy to talk about
increased access to qualifications and educational opportunity. Not only
has this been done on the cheap in terms of our living standards, but the
very idea of higher education itself has been seriously undermined.
Not only are universities playing the role of YTS schemes but our education
is increasingly beginning to resemble the content of a YTS scheme. It is
not just lack of resources - leading to staff-student ratios which have
increased from 8.5:1 in the eighties to 20:1 today - but more importantly
in terms of standards too. 'Resource-based' learning substitutes technology
for the cut and thrust of classroom interaction, reducing acquisition of
knowledge to learning by rote. Today it is almost impossible to fail many
exams, and new assessment methods make passing easier than ever before.
Course modularisation, multiple-choice questions, open book exams and
continuous assessment methods mean we are rarely challenged to excel.
The recent Higher Education Quality Council study on degree results clearly
shows an increase in the proportion of first class honours degrees, a
decline in thirds, while upper seconds are replacing lower seconds as the
most common result. These changes have coincided with student numbers
rocketing, funding per head falling, larger classes, and less individual
attention. The only conclusion we can draw is that standards are falling -
a fact disguised by the awarding of glittering prizes to anybody who gets
But if two-ones are being handed out like confetti, how useful are such
prizes? Surely there should be more to a degree than a piece of paper. In
the nineties' university getting qualified is seen as more important than
getting educated. University courses should be about study, reflection, new
ideas, critical thinking and the principle that gaining knowledge is a
worthwhile end in itself. Student life can only be damaged by the
intellectual poverty of courses that are little more than conveyor belts to
McJobs. This sort of education might be a convenient cover for bankrupt
politicians but it is not good enough for us.
For a more comprehensive outline of why young people need to learn the
difference between success and failure if their educational achievements
are to mean more than medals handed out merely for existing see Degrading
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