An academic question

By Jean Seaton 

We once cherished our universities—but now feel that there are too many of them and they hand out worthless degrees. Why have our highest seats of learning become so unloved?

The streets of London will soon be bustling with architecture students starting their first year at UCL’s Bartlett faculty. Armed with illuminating quotations from great authorities they will inspect, for example, the Nelson staircase at Somerset House, marvel at its elegant, soaring wit, discover for themselves its moral purpose, and never take staircases for granted again. At the same time, University of Westminster architecture undergraduates will seethe under and over the city, mapping where global warming will flood it and creating apocalyptic, realistic flood defences. Last year a similar project won every prize going. The head of the English department at Roehampton, Jenny Hartley, (the author of a highly praised book on Dickens’s house for fallen women) will organise reading groups in prisons. War studies students at King’s College, London will spend their second year gaming every battle in the second world war from both sides to see if they can get them to come out differently, while history undergraduates at Queen Mary prepare questions to put to the cabinet secretary when they meet him. The dentistry department at King’s has invented an online course that is managed in the developing world by students and teachers—and is changing the subject. Meanwhile, politics undergraduates at Hull prepare for placements with local politicians.

Doesn’t that all sound like important, mind-expanding fun? It is a tiny, biased fragment of the thrilling things happening to students in a university department near you. This is what universities ought to do: grow people. Those courses depend on much-maligned “research,” in that they are the product of passionate knowledge and the compulsion to communicate it. In each case the students are not merely handed a bundle of learning, and told to ingest in a lump like a python, but sent away to think for themselves and be inspired.

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