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Angela Tilby: Universities are more than factories

15 June 2018


AS THE university year comes to a close, the rise in the number of student suicides is deeply troubling. The background to this is the reported rise in teenage mental-health problems and questions about the adequacy of pastoral care on campus.

University has always had its pressures, of course, especially at the beginning of the year and in the exam season. Young people can feel both crowded out and lonely, and panic can spread like a virus.

I was the first of my family to go to university, and I saw it as a huge privilege. Every day brought new excitements and challenges. But it was totally exhausting, and I sometimes felt near the edge. The counter to this was that I was encouraged to think that my results were ultimately less important in themselves than my learning to think critically and to engage with my genuine strengths and weaknesses. A few of my contemporaries took the invitation to self-discovery to extremes, choosing to live on the dole after graduation while they worked out who they were.

University culture has changed massively — not so much, perhaps, at Oxbridge, but to a significant degree there, too. Students are now very obviously consumers, under pressure to get value for money. Outcomes really matter; it is no longer enough to spend university days singing, acting, and partying, and to stagger out with a Third. For some, now, not to emerge with a first is tantamount to failure.

Although the Government still provides the greater part of their funding, the universities have had to become proactive both in selling degrees and attracting other funding sources. Up to a point, this makes sense, but it can contribute to a culture of cynicism among students and teachers alike. At its worst, it fosters a view that human persons are no more than economic units, valued for their financial contribution and not for themselves.

Modern academe not only lacks groves: there is often no reflective space at all, while the constant pressure to publish discourages originality, and class sizes, make interaction between students and teachers all but impossible. What I most valued about my own university education was the sense of knowing those who taught me, and being known by them. But, today, teachers have less and less to do with the pastoral care of their students, which is increasingly devolved to various well-being services. We have, perhaps, bought too easily into the commodification of knowledge.

When one hears of students never meeting their tutors, and being marked by supervisors who do not recognise who they are, it is not surprising that some despair. Universities should not be knowledge factories; they are a context of learning to be a person — in other words, a school for human souls.

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