Is Lancaster teaching anybody anything?

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Anybody following the Conservative Party Conference may have noted the proclamations of Jenni Russell, a commentator who writes for The Times and the London Evening Standard, that many non-Oxbridge universities do “not teach anybody anything.” But anything said at the Conservative Party Conference must of course be taken, not with a pinch of salt, but with a bucketload.

She told a Conservative fringe meeting that she had spoken with someone working at Credit Suisse (a finance company) and concluded that English graduates cannot be recruited as they are not comparable to international talent, having never been anywhere and being unable to speak any other language. She even went on to compare native English graduates to the disabled. Note the use of “English” rather than “British”. Now, this is either inherently racist or downright insensitive, or even both. It is certainly not a metaphor that should be used in the mainstream, as unpopular as Conservative Party Conferences are.

There is a huge difference between being monolingual and being disabled. There are certainly no “Monolingual Needs Departments” in schools or “monolingual access ramps” in buildings. Granted, being able to speak only one language may raise issues should one decide to go abroad or converse with people from another country. But according to the BBC, over 95% of the British population are monolingual English speakers. In comparison to this, the number of disabled people in Britain is much, much lower.

Putting aside this tactless comment, is attending Oxford or Cambridge really that crucial for life in the real world? Does dressing up for black tie events or wearing elegant robes for evening meals every week, receiving battels, and calling the cleaners “Scouts” make one a superior academic? Russell claims student workloads outside of Oxbridge are minimal. It is true that at Lancaster, as with multiple other universities, students do not receive (unless they are very unlucky) an essay every week of an eight-week term, but it is surely the content and quality of the essays given, rather than quantity, which helps a person to grow and succeed in academia.

Russell also claims that academics at non-Oxbridge universities are rated on their research output rather than what they are doing for their students. She seems to forget that the primary job of a university is to research, study, and develop the minds of intellectuals. University is not just big sixth form. Lecturers and tutors are not there to spoon-feed you all of the information, or hold your hand as you walk down the road. Students require initiative and a desire to study and succeed in order to produce results worthy of a degree. Yes, universities have a duty of pastoral care to make sure students know what they are doing and do not feel overwhelmed by towering libraries, imposing reading material, and strict word counts in essays, but the students themselves – regardless of which university they attend – have a responsibility to seek the knowledge they need as Harry Potter seeks the Golden Snitch: passionately, determinedly and relentlessly.

Should a researcher provide all the information needed for students to succeed, then plagiarism would be rife and nothing new would be discovered, formulated, or made. If researchers across the United Kingdom devoted all their time to students, they would not have the opportunity to study (and kill) the world’s oldest mollusc in Bangor. Lancaster would be a very dull place if everybody was taught the same information or skills – a situation which could be compared to the Orwellian society of 1984.

Ultimately, Russell’s views seem even more outdated than MySpace, the Ford Model T, and Rickrolling. Her speech conveyed the impression that she feels all universities should take a monastic approach of mediaeval teaching. She complained: “There has been a real change in the way universities operate… [since] 20 or 30 years ago.” This is something that we in the modern world call “development”. Just as technology, sporting talent, and Channel 4’s programming improves, so too do universities and their provision of education. In answer to the question, “do you need to attend Oxbridge to be successful?” I offer a resounding, “no”. When Lancaster University was founded, it did not set out to be “just another” university. With time, effort, and enthusiasm, it has risen in the rankings to the best young university in the UK according to the Times Higher Education ‘100 Under 50’, and the 10th best young university in the entire world as of 1 May 2014. I say to Jenni Russell: wake up and smell the red roses.

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