Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Essay - the university experience

In a comment, KVD wrote:

You recently said “too much politics” – to which one might add “and management” so, for a wet weekend I give you 101 Blog Post Titles.

The link David provided took me through to a set of exam papers from All Souls College, Oxford. I could see what David meant, but I couldn't help wondering what the questions were for. Some were very general, but in all they covered a remarkable range of topics. Further, they were clearly designed for long essays and took a form that I had not seen for many years - 'A lunatic is easily recognised. Sooner or later he brings up the Knights Templar' (Umberto  Eco). Discuss.

All this made me curious, so I started digging around.

Each Autumn, All Souls College elects two Examination Fellows from a field of fifty or so candidates. The Fellowships lasts for seven years and cannot be renewed. Examination Fellows are full members of the College's governing body, with a vote, a salary, free board and lodging, and various other benefits. The College pays the University fees of Examination Fellows who are studying for degrees at Oxford.

Some Fellows pursue academic careers. However, Fellows can also pursue careers outside Oxford. The College describes the academic stream in this way:

You get seven years of research in ideal conditions, in regular contact with leading scholars in your field, and free from many of the pressures, financial and otherwise, which can afflict graduate students. In seven years you might, for example, be able to complete a doctorate, turn it into a book, and then get started on another project. The College also encourages Fellows to get involved in University teaching. So, if you aim for an academic career, the College helps you get experience of tutorial teaching, and if you give lectures your salary is increased.

To get a Fellowship, you have to sit  four papers of three hours each. Two of these are in the chosen specialist subject – Classical Studies, Law, History, English Literature, Economics, Politics or Philosophy; the other two are general. Short-listed candidates have to undergo a viva. All Fellows can participate in the selection process.

As at  November 2009, All Souls had seventy-six Fellows, nine Visiting Fellows, and twenty-four Emeritus Fellows, whose continuing research the College actively supported. At that point, the College had fourteen Fellows of the British Academy (and a further sixteen amongst its Emeritus Fellows), four Fellows of the Royal Society, and one Nobel laureate. 

The College describes its Fellows in these terms:

Of the current Fellows, twenty-eight are academics entirely funded by All Souls (as Senior Research Fellows, Post-Doctoral Fellows, and Examination Fellows), seventeen are academics with Oxford University positions attached to All Souls, and the rest include academics at other universities, non-academics (e.g. barristers), former Fellows who have attained distinction in public life, and the College Chaplain and Bursars. The non-academic Fellows play an important part in the governance of the College and help connect academic and public life, notably in law, economics, politics and international relations.

In the very funny British TV series Yes Minister, Nigel Hawthorn played the role of Sir Humphrey Appleby, head of the Department of Administrative Affairs. Sir Humphrey read classics at the fictional Baillie College, Oxford. The on-going relationship between Sir Humphrey and his old college is one of the sub-themes in the series. On one side, Sir Humphrey seeks recognition, on the other side the College plays on the link. I thought of this when I read the College's description of its Fellows. 

All this carried me back into that past world before large classes, aptitude tests, short answers and group exercises came to dominate, the world of elite universities. Here David arguably had the opposite effect to that intended; this is territory I have travelled before!

I have written a fair bit about Australian universities with a focus on their life and culture and their place in Australian history. I do so because it interests me. This was the world in which I grew up, a different world from today. It was also a world in which universities and their academics were far more important than they are today.

Earlier I used the phrase "elite universities". That's true, because there were (and are) pecking orders among universities. However, I should probably have used the phrase universities for the elites.

Don Aitkin nominated the growth of mass secondary and tertiary education as the single most important Australian achievement of the last part of the Twentieth Century. I know what he means. When I first entered university, university education was already expanding rapidly. Still, even then, perhaps 5 per cent of young people attended university.

Paul Barratt's What a privilege it was ... provides a nostalgic look at those days through the prism set by our old university. Paul started in 1961 when there were just 600 on-campus undergraduates. By the time I started in 1963, there were 1,200. Paul points to the very low staff/student rations as a key element. I found the same.

At Oxford today, there are around 20,000 students, of which 11,766 are undergraduates. The University states that the tutorial is at the core of undergraduate teaching and learning at Oxford. It offers students a unique learning experience in which they meet regularly with their tutor, either on a one-to-one basis or with one or two other students.

In the US, Yale has around 11,250 students, of which 5,247 are undergraduate. Again, the student/staff experience is central.

By contrast to Oxford or Yale, many Australian universities are now very large. Sydney University has 47,775 students, the University of NSW close to 40,000. These are substantial cities in their own right, dominated by the constraints necessary to deliver mass education. The small tutorial groups that I knew and that were central to my university experience are rare. Close relations between staff and students no longer exist.

This post is not a plea for a return to the past, although I might argue for some elements of that. Rather, it represents an oddly nostalgic reaction to the All Souls exam papers. Clare MAHA cruise

Just at present, both my girls are at University here in Sydney, one at Macquarie, one at UNSW. Their experience confirms some of my prejudices, but also reminds me not to generalise too much.

The photo shows youngest on the Macquarie Ancient History Association Harbour cruise. I am not sure how many students there are at Macquarie, but it too is a very large university. However, within Macquarie Clare is getting a university experience that is closer to mine.

This partially reflects the girls' interests.

Clare has selected a minority course - Ancient History - where numbers are lower. She has been doing subjects - Middle Kingdom hieroglyphics and now Latin - that can hardly be described as main stream! Her Facebook name keeps changing and has now moved to Z (why not?) Clare Agrippina. Agrippina? Well, this was one strong if strange lady

  Helen is more organised.

To her, university is a means to an end. Working, playing and coaching netball, university is less central, something to pass though. However, this does not mean that she is less critical of the University experience than Clare. The opposite is true.

Both girls support their universities, although its a funny mixed thing. There is not the one-eyed support that you would and will get from me for the University of New England.

Clare, for example, is at Macquarie, but plays hockey goalie for a UNSW team and is a regular at the UNSW Circus group. Given her UNSW connections, members of the UNSW Circus group were expected to come to the Macquarie Ancient History Review and indeed some did. So you won't get criticism of UNSW.

With Helen, if I attack UNSW I get a defence. However, her own criticisms of the University are quite forensic. How does the place perform in terms of her own objectives and interests? Not always well, is the answer.

Two girls plus one father, three very different reactions.

In all this, the single thing that I would like to see in the current Australian university system is simply more variety. It's not just that student interests vary. Variety is also important because it allows for flexibility and experimentation. I don't think that we have this at present.

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