We are all privileged to be at a leading UK university, one which consistently ranks top in several subjects and student satisfaction. A good education, in a place like this is, an arena in which we can flourish into more complex people. A deep understanding of the topic we choose in turn gives insights into the surrounding world we would never grasp were it not for us being here. And yet I am frustrated, because our education system and its environment in many ways counteracts what we need to reach this state.
Take for instance the increasing number of students attending university. Many celebrate this as a triumph, and giving opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to come here for socioeconomic reasons is incredibly important. However, blindingly touting the rising number of students as a success for society is a claim that clearly ignores the subsequent dilution of the value of a degree, and turns universities from institutes of learning and research into money-making businesses which profit from high student intake. Though I don’t think St Andrews is the most extreme example, there are many institutions which exploit 18-year olds out of tens of thousands of pounds for an essentially worthless degree.
To further this, people less and less attend university purely out of love for a subject. Instead, many feel pressured into needing a degree. They come in for a piece of paper, a few pints, and a fast track into a grad scheme. This will get you a job, yes, but it will not teach you the value of education and being surrounded by people with this attitude can be crippling.
Another constraint is that to be accredited many courses must tick certain boxes. This guide should not be the only thing a student follows to get a deep understanding of a subject. Students should instead be reading around, going to guest lectures, and fervently discussing topics with each other. They too should be encouraged to start questioning things more and be pushed to come up with their own ideas. However, an exam does not and cannot differentiate between a large depth of knowledge and understanding, and just knowing how to automatically answer a question. You can still do reasonably well with a shallow grasp of the subject.
Which brings us to the grading system. There are far too many people who put their self-worth down to a number on a page. I know it’s a cliché affirmation to say that you are not your grade, but I say this in a much less kind way. You are not that number because, if you sat several different versions of that exam, I’m sure you’d get a lower score. If you sat that same exam in six months, you’d likely fail, and there’s a reasonably large chance that even if your grade is good you will still have a faded understanding of the subject. And I say this with full awareness that I have – at times – fit into all three of these categories. Further, for the students who have to exhaustively write essays on repeat, if your tutor were different, your mark would certainly be so too. To add to the negativity, testing people on a subject actually lowers their performance, compared to those who don’t know they’re being tested. These grading schemes are not a tool to allow you to gain a deep appreciation and understanding of your subject – they exist to differentiate between students so that employers know whose CV to bin first. They distract from the point of being here. Instead of wanting to learn, we want to get a good grade, and these two are not, in general, equivalent.
But outside of the lecture theatres, there are a hundred things to do and no time to do them all. We are expected to join societies, clubs, and to continually churn out internship applications. There is a finite amount of learning we can achieve in a day and mounting more expectations on ourselves because our degrees are no longer enough has the potential to drive a student into burnout or perhaps breakdown. We are tired. We stop caring about our subject. We want to get a degree and go.
Though it may sound rather depressing, we need to be aware of the changing environment of our education system if we are to protect one of the most rewarding experiences life can offer – real, deep learning. It would do us all well to consider why we are here and what we want from our degree. Once that awareness is there, the responsibility is now in our hands. To really get an education that will shape our lives for the better, we must cultivate in ourselves the ability to ignore grades and pressures to do everything all the time (bench press during sleep? Tutorial work during open-heart surgery?) and we should strive to understand the people and processes that laid the foundations for our course of study, and ignore those who look down on us for putting in large amounts of consistent effort over time. The brash attitude of doing everything last minute is unimpressive.
I’m sometimes overly optimistic and hence expected more when I came to university – but I can’t be too bitter. Being able to cultivate a love of learning as a subject in and of itself is one of the ways in which our environment has benefited me. If you feel equally frustrated at times, I highly recommend that you take the opportunity to do the same – learn how to learn in the most meaningful way possible. In the end, that is worth much more than a singular classification on a transcript.