Why go to University

We know that the vast majority of students (85% in September 2016) go into higher education to get a qualification. But there are other reasons as well that have nothing to do with learning. As Stevens points out, “The college… is proud of its twenty-eight varsity sports teams, its budding artists and musicians, community service projects, diverse student body, spectacular campus, and loyal alumni… making college life more athletic, more masculine, and more fun.” Although some of these activities promote learning, none of them are about academic learning.

Most higher education institutions have senior administrators devoted to “The Student Experience”, ensuring that there are clubs, teams, night clubs, bars, and other entertaining and fun reasons for students to come and bring their money to a particular institution.

The students arrive knowing how to learn (memorize and regurgitate) as a result of years and years of practice. In addition, they know that they can accomplish anything they desire, become whatever they want to become, and there is an entire world poised and waiting for them, just them, to emerge with their qualification in their hand to be ushered into a high paying, totally fulfilling lifelong career. This is what they have been told since primary school. All they have to do is get through.

Universities are no longer places of learning but businesses that attract students for the cash they carry and then provide them with entertainment and fun for a few years. In addition, they have some classes they have to take in order to get their coveted qualification and emerge, having made it. I was blown away one day while wasting time watching some show about Andrew Lloyd Weber selecting a high school choir to be part of a show when one of the students in the choir (about 16 or 17 years old) said something like the following, “We deserve to win. We have never put so much effort into anything before in our lives. We have been practicing for three weeks now, putting in two hours after school every single day.” Unbelievable! And these are the students we are attracting, not for their academic ability or work ethic, but for the money they bring with them.

I overheard a college student in a two-year general studies program tell her friend, “I’m going to be a Supreme Court judge. I am going to have to go to Harvard or somewhere like that. I think it is somewhere back east, like Toronto or something.” A clear set of goals, in a general studies program catering for students who struggled through high school, and she didn’t even know that the university she aspired to attend was not even in Canada.

The naivety astounds me. And then, we reinforce it, because they are worth good money.

The majority of students today will select their classes within their program that require the least amount of work and avoid classes that look for anything other than memorize and regurgitate.

How can any of us blame them? This is what they have been raised to believe. This is what they are sold by higher education marketers. This is exactly what the majority of our higher education teachers give them (they have to, or the students wouldn’t get through). Is it any wonder they are unemployable when they finish?

I know that there are “professional” schools that have much higher standards(and there are actually a few). But, even the majority of the professional programs are tailored to cater to the students we take in or they wouldn’t be “viable” and would be closed by the university administration. Many of these professional schools are the biggest draw for incoming students, so don’t tell me that the “successful” professional schools don’t give the students exactly what they want and are willing to do.

The losers are society at large and the students who actually want to learn. Many of them figure it out on their own, but too many flounder and leave feeling empty and disillusioned by their experience. I have, literally hundreds, of students who write to me saying that they thought that university was going to be like the challenging, but enjoyable, classes I teach where the students engage in academic debate every week and immerse themselves in academic subjects week after week. They tell me they feel cheated and that I have ruined their university experience because they have to go back to classes based on memorize and regurgitate. Even regurgitating a canned (read convergent) essay or open-ended exam question is an empty exercise.

Why don’t we change? As I wrote yesterday, the system has changed to the point where we all work for a line-manager, who works for a line-manager, who works for a line-manager, and our jobs are to get the students through. I was told by my line-manager that I had to stop teaching the way I taught because it was making the rest of the faculty look bad. I was in a privileged position where I could tell him where to go and continue doing what I wanted. Most of you aren’t. Your job is to make the students happy and give them what they want. Unfortunately, there are too many faculty members out there who have bought into the system and are quite happy just doing their jobs. How sad.

For the rest of you, I am trying to do something about it and am involved in a project to bring learning back to a campus near you. If you want to be involved, send a request to join our LinkedIn group “The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning”. For the students who care about learning, we are going to offer them something substantial. For those who don’t, as I have said to dozens and dozens, “If you don’t care, I don’t care.”

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