Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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UG Teaching today – forget the interest, get the grades

I’m going through the comments on the UG course I gave last year for the ‘you said, we did’ feedback system we have here (quite a good idea I think), and I came across the following comment:

‘in an ideal world we would still listen and learn all the cool stuff, as it is we are focused on exams ‘

I find this really depressing. If students these days are so focussed on the exams that they feel they have to ignore things which are not examinable, or which are difficult to examine, then they are ignoring much of educational value. This is a dreadful side effect of the ‘box ticking’ culture that dominates many fields today, including much of education, where you are judged on things that can be quantified, and so those things that cannot be quantified are deemed worthless.

I can understand, though be depressed by, this effect in university bureaucracies, but it is quite disturbing to see this effect working its way into students who have only just reached their twenties.

When I was a UG I was doing the subject because it interested me. Exams were a necessary evil, but not the reason I was doing physics. I wanted to learn how the world worked not how to eke the last mark out of an exam.

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University Commercialism – short term gain, long term damage

It’s the start of the new university year, and, alongside the happy arrival of new and enthusiastic students, there is also the return of business as normal.

And I do mean business.

Increasingly, it seems, our local powers-that-be are regarding students as captive customers, whose money should be captured and recirculated by the university as much as possible. The latest horrors I’ve heard in this area concern the social side of halls of residence. Every expenditure, I am told, down to the last plastic cup bought for a welcome event, has to be approved by someone in the central administration, and if there is a way that item can be bought from the university, then it has to be. This causes problems when you forget something necessary on the night, and can lead to idiocies, such as an instruction to buy pizzas from a university outlet rather than a delivery company, because they were ‘cheaper’, ignoring the fact that university pizzas were 10″ while the delivery ones were 17″. At the same time, the halls are banned from spending any money on outside events, so the great things we did for freshers when I was a UG – boat trips, skating trips, cinema trips – are right out.

Rampant commercialism continues elsewhere on the campus. The non-academic staff club was closed down over the summer, to be redeveloped into an identikit bar run by commercial services (no real ale, no privacy from students etc.), while the opticians on the main walkway has been evicted, to be replaced by yet another commercial services catering outlet. The wardening system, whereby academics and graduate students assist with welfare in halls, is under renewed threat, and further chunks of the Union’s space are being bitten off for development into revenue-producing accommodation. Commerce not caring appears to be the university’s attitude to students and staff.

What impression does this give to the students? Does it make them feel appreciated, cared for, appreciated as individuals?

Of course not. It makes them feel like cash cows, which is how they are being treated. The long term consequence of this is to make it far less likely that any of these people will, in later life, make large charitable donations to the institution. A small short term gain becomes a much larger long term loss.

Is this how the Harvards and Oxbridges of this world got to have large endowments? I think not.

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University Entrance Personal Statements

There is a lot of news coverage today on how the well off, and particularly independent school pupils, get an unfair advantage in University Entrance because they are more likely to have done interesting things which then go on their personal statements, and that they generally get more help in writing them.

I think the authors of this report aren’t properly informed of on how we actually use these statements as part of the admissions process. Now, what I say here is based only on my own experience as an admissions interviewer for one department in one university, but what I do is entirely consistent with what my colleagues do. More broadly, university admissions teams are fully aware of the issues the Sutton Trust has raised, so we know the standard and content of personal statements is correlated with the student’s background, and will take that into account.

So what do I actually use the personal statement for?

Largely, I just use it as a starting point for the conversation part of the interview. If the applicant has listed some interesting things on the form I might talk about them. If they haven’t, I’ll talk about something else. What I’m trying to establish in these conversations is interest, motivation and ability. The statement is just a starting point, and once we’ve started, it is essentially ignored. There are slips that can be made – put down an activity and be unable to discuss it and that won’t help you. Say that you read something regularly and be unable to discuss any recent articles, and that won’t help either. I’ve had applicants from both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools mess up on these points.

But to suggest that the content of the personal statement is given significant weight is, in my experience and practice at least, wrong.