If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
Orwell’s famous quote on liberty has always sounded to me like something an abusive father would use to justify over-disciplining a child. Superior, self-pitying (why is it always me who has to deal in these home truths?), tactless (no, you have to hear this, I don’t care what it does to you), it is practically a patriarchal mission statement. It assumes that things “people don’t want to hear” — you’re worthless, you’re an object, you don’t exist — don’t have the power to make people less free. It assumes knowledge of why people don’t want to listen (can’t handle the truth, can’t argue back, just can’t face it, can you?). Those who don’t want you to speak are positioned as petulant children. It is how abusers think of those who ask them to stop.
I’ve felt all this about the current hot topic of free speech in British universities. To be clear, I am not on the side of young, white, middle-class students who seek to no platform women who’ve got more integrity and compassion in their little fingers than these students have ever shown in their lives. However, I don’t think these students are merely petulant children who don’t know what they’re doing or can’t stand debate. To me this just doesn’t ring true. Perhaps some of them are weak, but those shouting the loudest are the ones who are chairing societies. They’re ambitious, if ignorant, mini-politicians (and since when has ignorance got in the way of a successful political career?). Continue reading
Dear state school pupils with aspirations to go on to higher education
I am sorry, for I have failed you. You may be blaming tuition fees, or unpaid internships, or the loss of EMA for ruining your prospects, but actually it’s me and others of my ilk. For I, a fellow state school pupil, had opportunities, great opportunities, and I wasted them, and now everyone thinks you’re rubbish as a result.
We are led to believe that this country is run by a cabal of Oxbridge graduates who dominate politics, law, business and the media — and it is. All the same, I am an Oxbridge graduate. I’ve done both the Ox (BA) and the –bridge (PhD). So really I ought to be pretty damn powerful, with lots and lots of money. Alas, I’m not. I’ve always assumed it’s because, from a position of privilege, I’ve been able to make choices and money and power weren’t my priorities. Turns out I got it wrong. It’s because of the school I went to. I mean, it wasn’t a bad school. It was actually a pretty nice grammar school but still, it was hardly Cheltenham Ladies College, and that matters, you see. That’s why I lack the “soft skills” necessary to succeed. It’s also why everyone thinks that you do, too. Continue reading
What is the point of our university system? To promote and extend research? To prepare future employees for specialist careers? To allow UK workers to compete in a global marketplace? I don’t know whether there’s a single answer to this; I suspect it depends on the institution and the discipline. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure the purpose of any degree should not be to further social and economic inequalities. This is one of many points upon which The Telegraph and I disagree.
In an outraged piece entitled “Universities must select on merit”, the newspaper complains that some institutions “are awarding places on the basis of a system that gives points to disadvantaged students for ‘contextual’ factors, such as whether they attended a bad school or come from a poor area”. This seems reasonable to me. After all, it’s not as though A-level and GCSE results tell the whole story. University admissions tutors are interested not just in track records, but in potential. It’s not easy to work these things out – it never will be – but so far it does not appear that they’ve been getting it terribly wrong. If there was a gross discrepancy between the achievements of richer and poorer students when it came to finals, this might be a cause for concern. But there isn’t. And since all UK state schools will never, ever become Eton-style exam factories (and I don’t believe we’d want them to be), using exam results alone would be unfair. Yes, it would mean using a simple, black and white method for selection, but this is not the same as selecting “on merit”. Continue reading
The problem today is the A level is so dumbed down that for many employers A levels obtained since 1990 aren’t worth the paper there [sic] written on.
The above is a comment following a Telegraph piece on education. I took not only A-levels, but GCSEs post-1990. I have to say, I’m pretty sure the difference between “there”, “their” and “they’re” was covered way before we progressed to the higher qualification. But anyhow, what do I know? Perhaps it’s only “your” and “you’re” that employers worry about.
Anyhow, the Telegraph piece raises the possibility of funding changes which restrict state school pupils to taking only 3 A-levels. I went to a state school and took 3 A-levels (okay, I took General Studies as well. And I would count that, but what’s the point? No bugger else will). 3 A-levels were enough to get me a place at Oxford University, but things were different in 1993. It’s way more competitive now. Back then 3 good A-levels were still relatively well-respected; nowadays it’s assumed you could do them blindfold, with your arms tied behind your back, dangling over a pit of vipers. And they’d still be too easy. The young don’t know they’re born (that’s probably a question in A2 biology: Were you born? And I imagine half of them get it wrong). Continue reading