21 November 2011 10:34 AM

What is the point of a degree? Discuss.

By Jack Rivlin

There was an awkward silence on Newsnight on Tuesday. An unemployed graduate was complaining about his bad job prospects when Jeremy Paxman interjected: “Maybe you should choose a degree that gets you a job.”

Well hang on a minute, Paxo. Is the only point of going to University to get a job? I ruddy well hope not.

For many people, education is simply a route to earning money. But I believe education can be an end in itself. If you want to be that square who says they chose their degree for its “really good job prospects” then go ahead, but studying a subject because it interests you should be enough of a reason to go to University.

University is also valuable precisely because it gives you an adult life outside of the rat race.  Young people have precious little time to cultivate interests and a personality before they’re told to ‘brand’ themselves and ‘develop a persona.’ They need a window of real self-development.

Our American and European cousins have already gone down this road. There, you routinely find people who studied things like Business Strategy and Management. Well that makes for some cracking dinner party fodder. “What shall we talk about first: Quantitative Methods or Finance and Accounting?”

Do we want to turn our Universities into employee factories, churning out an army of Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss clones, shinier and better at networking than the iPhone 4S, but lacking any real personality?

I’m sure Paxman, a literature graduate, was just being Devil’s Advocate (is he ever anything else?). But his lazy remark is the watchword for a growing movement of utilitarians who see the CV first and the person second.

If we don’t rescue education from this economic imperative, we’ll be a nation of – to borrow a phrase from The Thick of It – “brushed-aluminium cyber-pricks.”

08 November 2011 1:29 PM

Helping us become better doctors

By Lucy Everson

Some of the people who I am eternally indebted to are those who decide to leave their bodies to medical science after they die. It must be an incredibly brave decision and one which I can imagine the families of the deceased often don’t agree with. However, I can say that if it wasn’t for these people my knowledge of the human form would not be nearly as in depth as it is now.  

During first and second year at my medical school much of our time is spent in the dissection room with cadavers, consolidating the words and pictures we look at in text books and having the opportunity to open the body ourselves and explore the structures within. It’s an incredibly interesting way to learn and I don’t think there is a better way to really get to grips with human anatomy.

The first time I entered the dissection room was surreal. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and the sight of lines of shrouded bodies took a few minutes to take in. The smell of formaldehyde in the room also took some time to get used to. By now I don’t notice it much at all until I realise people are recoiling away from the smell in my hair and clothes after I have left the dissection room.

One of the oddest moments of my fresher year occurred when we were dissecting the heart. I found myself walking over to my friend carrying a heart to compare it with the heart from her cadaver. I stopped midway over to her table and looked down at my hands, realising that there are very few people who would get the opportunity to casually carry a heart across a room. This year I have opted to do advanced dissection of the upper limb. I never thought that I would have to decline a lunch invitation with the excuse that I must continue dissecting my arm.

The cadavers are treated with the upmost respect and at the end of every year a memorial service is held to thank those people who kindly donated their bodies to help us become better doctors. We medical students cannot thank them enough.

31 October 2011 1:43 PM

Oxbridge MAs: an unfair head start in the graduate rat-race

By Jack Rivlin

Labour MP Chris Leslie has been campaigning to end Oxford and Cambridge’s right to award all students an honorary MA three years after they graduate. For a small fee, Cambridge and Oxford students can convert their BA to an MA (Cantab.) or MA (Oxon.).

Initially, this campaign annoyed me. I did my undergrad degree at Cambridge, and I’m looking forward to heading back there in 2013 for a repeat of the bizarre graduation ceremony I took part in 18 months ago.

I was annoyed with Leslie because I could not see the point. Aren’t there more important problems at Oxbridge, like the dearth of black students or the private school bias? I can’t help feeling that a country that tolerates Guantanamo Bay and allows James May’s face to appear on the side of buses has bigger problems.

Leslie points to a survey of employers which found 62% didn’t know the difference between a real MA and the automatically awarded Oxbridge MA. Even if you ignore the obvious flaws in such a survey, I still find it hard to blame Oxford and Cambridge for HR departments’ inability to decipher the basics of a CV.

But, the more I thought about it, the harder I found it to justify this particular privilege. Even if it doesn’t indicate anything other than a clean criminal record (you need one to upgrade your degree), the ‘free’ MA is a pointless anachronism.

Do Oxford and Cambridge really need to rely on tradition to distinguish themselves from other universities? If the two Universities want to hold on to their special status in a competitive education market, they should earn it on merit, not by recourse to ancient customs. 

It is top quality research, one on one teaching and world-class teaching staff that make Oxbridge special – they should be encouraged to preserve those strengths in competitive conditions.

Oxbridge graduates often justify their special status by pointing to the additional work they have to do at University. But there are people at other Universities who worked far harder than I ever could have at Cambridge.  

Students at Oxford and Cambridge massively benefit from the quality of education they receive. They don’t need any extra prizes.

20 October 2011 2:56 PM

It's been a shock, but I wouldn't want to be anywhere else

By Lucy Everson

I’ve been sitting at my desk for two hours now and I’ve barely written a page of notes. A combination of Facebook, being hung-over and talking on the phone to my housemate (who is upstairs) has denied me a productive working session.  Not for the first time I’m wondering why I chose to do medicine.

In reality, I know why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s interesting, fun and there is no such thing as an average day. Last week I experienced “electrode stimulation” to my hand. An electrode was strapped to my wrist and my friend administered electric shocks, causing the muscles of my hand to twitch. It’s an incredibly strange feeling and even though I had been reassured several times that it is perfectly safe and shouldn’t hurt I couldn’t help squealing every time a shock was delivered. By the time the voltage reached 70 Volts I was convinced my friend was torturing me. It was only when I noticed the guy opposite calmly taking 100 Volts that I realised I was being a bit pathetic.

Medics have a work hard play hard attitude and I can see why. It’s a romantic ideal that the second year of my studies would be spent visiting friends’ houses for cups of tea or going for a casual lunch time drink but in reality there just isn’t time. Instead, we have two or three nights a week as the only solid blocks of time when we aren’t revising and it is all too easy to go a bit crazy. For us, Mondays are the best night of the week. Last Monday was a typical one: I danced a lot, had now forgotten long conversations with friends, committed ‘medics incest’ by kissing one of the boys in my year and finished it all off by staying up even longer with my housemates gossiping.

Even though I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be doing a different subject I would never do anything else. Despite the work, the constant tiredness and the feeling that you always have something else you could be doing, medical school is the most brilliant experience I could have.

Student protest: the activist mercenaries

By Jack Rivlin

On  November 19, the NUS will hold its 2011 Student Activism conference. According to the promotional material, the event aims to bring together student activists “across the political spectrum.” It will be delivered “through a huge menu of workshops, talks, discussions, master classes and debates, and culminate in a mass rally.”

I’ll put aside my concerns about the impossible task of “bringing together student activists across the political spectrum.” It’s still hard to get excited about an event which has no actual cause. I bet the global capitalist conspirators are quaking in their boots, particularly about the “mass rally.” You can see the headlines now: 10,000 march on London in support of…marching.

What will be discussed at these events? How to design witty placards? How to stop yourself from urinating while you’re being kettled? Perhaps Charlie Gilmour will be giving a seminar on cenotaph swinging.

That’s a cheap shot, I know. But there’s a common theme that links Gilmour’s idiocy and this conference. Both are simply celebrations of outrage, they aren’t about anything other than radical nitwits being young and angry. Has the proud tradition of campaigning that gave women the vote and homosexuals equal rights really been reduced to an end in itself?

I know people who will be at this conference and they often complain that Britain’s youth are nihilistic and apathetic. They probably view an activism conference as the perfect antidote to this crisis of engagement. But what could be more nihilistic and pointless than activism without a cause?

This is what student activism has come to. We don’t actually need a cause any more; we can just become activist mercenaries, stumbling from protest to occupation, coining Twitter hashtags along the way.

A lot of commentators portrayed the protesters at Dale Farm as left-wing rent-a-mobs who would jump on any cause they could.  The NUS are making it hard to argue otherwise.


04 March 2011 2:04 PM

London living: Going it alone

Christian Jensen
BA Journalism, City University

When confirmation came through of my university  place , it included  a handful of fancy-looking accommodation offers. I had already been living in London for two years and by then experienced  pretty much every way of living this city has to offer: dodgy 28-bed hostel rooms, a lonely flat in zone 4, amazing house shares, a live-in job in a church, speedflatmating and a squat in Stepney Green for two months over a Christmas. I believed I had seen my share of  shady deals and odd accommodation.  But what students have to live with surprised me.

After a tour of the halls (not just the ones connected to my own university , but a good handful of the independent ones as well) I believed that although they were a bit too pricey,  the quality appeared to be a decent return for the price.  However, I managed to find myself a room for the same price on Gumtree. And within weeks of getting to know my new coursemates at City University, I realised I had been very lucky in avoiding the nightmare of living in student halls.

 The daily life and problems they told me about made the price they were paying  seem very high and the whole ordeal like living in a badly run hostel or, at times, a prison colony .

So what did they tell me? Up to 16 people sharing public bathrooms, fire alarms going off in the early hours of the morning, maintenance workers round the clock, sometimes dealing with  faulty heating systems and suicide-proof windows that cannot open properly, which is great in the summer when the heating will not turn off. And when I was looking at halls, they somehow failed to show me the old mouldy buildings or ones refurbished so fast they still reeked of paint or point out the lack of common rooms on many floors. And those are just a few examples of the low quality many students pay through their wallets for.

The tight year-long contracts underline the whole nasty feeling of exploitation, especially when you remember that most first year students do not have either a chance to visit the halls before signing or the experience to spot a dodgy offer.

Perhaps, the worst though is the strict security which prevents anything resembling a normal social life, something most students will have expected to look back on as a highlight of their time at university. Instead you are faced with compulsory sign-in for all guests, with proof of identification and an allowance of only three guests per week after 10 pm. And, Big Brother style, there are CCTV cameras everywhere and no feeling of privacy.

I’m therefore now glad I took the risk to go it alone. All the more so after one of  my fellow students discovered that the design for most of the halls accommodation are based on blueprints of Swedish prison cells.

25 February 2011 3:11 PM

Hard up in London without much capital

Helen Trattles

Helen Trattles,
BA Journalism, City University

If you ask me, students in London have it the hard way, but many of them are completely unaware of the fact. Their student survival methods actually involve putting themselves into dangerous scenarios, whilst they unconsciously outlay more money on clubs, alcohol and transport than the standard Londoner does.

Many of them go to so called ‘student nights’ in clubs and bars because they think they are getting a bargain booze-up. Well, I honestly don’t understand how a club can call it ‘student night’ and charge £8 entry fee. The drink prices might be reduced or discounted, but if you are not too drunk to realise, they are only normally about one pound less than their usual prices. If you are a group of girls, a night out  in Mayfair VIP style amounts to far less than a student night; arrive before eleven, and you get free entry as well as free glasses of Grey Goose and cranberry offered to you all night from table service. Bizarrely, the most exclusive clubs can’t help but give away their vodka; in China White last weekend, we actually had a ‘Grey Goose’ fight.

Students cannot seem to comprehend the taxi v tube debate when it comes to getting to and from your night out. The tube usually involves setting off an hour early, walking to the station with barely any clothes on, taking three tubes across London, and then walking from the tube to the club. By this point, you can no longer feel your hands you are that cold, you have sobered up, and you are therefore going to have to buy an extreme amount of drinks as soon as you finally arrive. On top of this, you may have risked your life. It is not safe for drunken female students to be riding the tube at 11pm; the one time I did, I got threatened with a knife at Elephant and Castle, but was too drunk to remember until someone informed me the following day.

With a group of you, a taxi is likely to cost only around a couple of pounds each. With the comfort of staying warm, you can order the taxi straight to your door, and can be dropped off right outside the club. You have more time to pre-drink at home, and have therefore actually saved money, because unlike the tube mob, you won’t have to drink loads in the club because you ran out of time earlier.

Sticking the word ‘student’ on something doesn’t necessarily mean it is cheap. Just because you have used your student Oyster card to get to the club, doesn’t mean that it is the cheapest way. At the end of the day, student prices in London do not exist and life as a student is expensive. You might as well just do what normal non-students do, because it costs the same price and is often less hassle!

28 January 2011 2:39 PM

Student life isn't all booze and junk food... or is it?

Helen Trattles Helen Trattles, BA journalism, City University

Unfortunately, student life really is as they say it is: all booze and no food. These days, I find myself living off bowls of cereal and Subway sandwiches. Shamelessly, I can say I’ve eaten a twelve inch Subway sandwich every day for the past week. I’ve become a typical lazy student, where the thought of cooking a meal is actually less appealing than starting an essay.

I’m not the only student whose eating habits have become totally bizarre. I’m quite normal compared to my roommate, Harriet, who leads a very strict student lifestyle, eating virtually nothing. I think her theory may be that not eating for a week pays for a night out. This theory actually makes sense in a student’s mind. She literally lives off ‘Cup-A-Soup', the crisps from my Subway meal deal and the distasteful combination of lettuce with tomato ketchup. She has no idea how to operate the oven.
But then maybe she’s an exception, because others actually find it acceptable to add an extra meal to their three a day, eating a pizza from their local takeaway at four in the morning. People question why students come back in the summer three stone heavier; well I think that’s the answer.

But then maybe this is just a British thing. Student living in California is very different to life here. When I attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts - a performance school located in the shallowest of all places, Hollywood - we were not old enough to drink, so our nightlife became treating ourselves with a meal out. However this was only once a week, because we didn’t want to lose our figures. The mind set at university is rather different: eating out is a total waste of money, when instead we could use that money to buy two drinks in the club. Afterwards you can ‘eat out’ when having your 4am pizza.

The foreign students in City University in London do not spend all their money on alcohol; in fact most of them do not even drink. Our Chinese roommate Freya is actually horrified at our lack of cooking and excess of drinking. She treats herself to Waitrose food, unlike the rest of us who shop at Iceland. She has offered to cook us a proper meal tomorrow night; she genuinely feels that sorry for us. For the first time this year, Harriet and I will be eating a home cooked meal.

10 December 2010 3:36 PM

Tories give provocation to angry young men

Cooper Charlie Cooper, MA journalism, Goldsmiths 

What to say after a very long, dramatic, sometimes uplifting but sometimes dispiriting, day?

There was a lot of violence, from a significant minority of police and a significant minority of protesters. After four demonstrations now it's becoming clear that there are angry, aggressive people on both sides. Only on one side, however, are angry, aggressive people condoned by the law – and that is something that must change as protest in this country escalates, as it inevitably will. 

But attacks on property and police in the bitter cold of Parliament Square must not be viewed in isolation from the vote that took place a few hundred yards away in the warm halls of Westminster; a vote in favour of a fierce attack on the life chances of England’s and, in particular, London's youth. 

The most notable thing about the masked, metal fence-wielding contingent that took the fight to riot police in Whitehall is how young most of them were. None that I spoke to were older than sixth-form age. They are archetypal angry young men – determined to assert themselves, to prove their bravado, in a society that is closing doors on their life chances every way they turn. 

Conservative governments (and yesterday this was proved a Conservative, not a Coalition, government) have a learned-by-rote response to violence on the streets. It is “totally unacceptable”; the “the full force of the law must be brought to bear upon the perpetrators”. 

Never will you see a Conservative minister recognise that it is possible, while not condoning violence, to at least try to understand it. 

The “full force of the law” knee-jerk response is symptomatic of the regard in which this government holds its people, in particular its youth. 

The vast majority of protesters would join ministers in their distaste for the flagrantly violent attitude of many yesterday. But most would also take a more nuanced approach and recognise that when many people feel the need to act violently and resist the agents of the state, there must be something wrong in that state. Even angry young men take some provocation. 

And what provocation. £9,000 a year for tuition is a shocking sum. Rebel Conservative MP Andrew Percy made a brave intervention in the parliamentary debate yesterday when he said that his family would have been unlikely to encourage him to go to university – and set off on the road that put him in parliament – if that had meant debts of up to £50,000, as the graduates of 2015 will be the first to face. 

Whether they've thought it through or whether they sense it in the public mood, many a poor, teenage would-be MP has very good cause to be furious with the Government today. Its plans mean they probably won't stand a chance. 

“This government, and the police, they're so stupid,” said a bearded teenager as a crowd of hundreds were held on Westminster Bridge after the protest. “This is the next generation they're pissing off. They've made them angry now, and they're going to stay angry with them for the rest of their lives.”

03 December 2010 2:43 PM

What a reward for going to university. Cheers, Dave

CharlotteTaylor_150 Charlotte Taylor, BA journalism, City University

From the moment we start school our thoughts begin the slow progressive process of being shaped to fit into the mould of society.

Education could even be expressed as a mild form of government indoctrination of the youth: drawing up a curriculum to ensure most of us stay on this academic conveyor belt, last stop nine-to-fivedom.

The Tories hope to reach the target of sending 50 per cent or more of school leavers to university.  This would bode fantastically well for them, creating the entrepreneurs, investors and job creators of tomorrow, all serving to make them a favourable choice in the next election.

Why then are MPs so hell-bent on biting the hand that ultimately feeds them? It is after all doubtful that the senior bankers, riding high on scandalous bonuses, who created this mess, even contributed half as much to their tuition (if any at all) as today’s students.

And with what are the reams of bright, conscientious future graduates met? Intense job competition and, to add insult to injury, mass debt, with the cap being lifted off fees which are escalating to leave many students five figures into the red. Thanks, Dave.

British students already pay a premium in comparison with their European counterparts. Our fees are £3,250 a term, but in France they vary from €150 to €700 depending on the university and level of education. 

Many students bear a less-than-glamorous minimum wage job to pay their way, often alongside work experience, acknowledging the increasing competition for jobs highlighted at almost every lecture.  

The Government is effectively asking students to pay triple fees in an adverse economic climate, where a job at the end is an uncertain luxury. This amount of investment and faith in an unstable future is absurd and would be treated so were it any other money making scheme, besides education. It would be like forcing a pauper to find the means to buy a BMW in the off chance it might get him somewhere, someday.

But this is the future that faces students, and we will have to thrift and save with even greater determination than those before just to make ends meet. A cool reward indeed.