New College: a degree from A Good University

Depending on who you talk to, the planned New College of the Humanities is the saviour of British education or its death knell.

To some, setting up a private college is a long-overdue move to put Britain back into competition with the diverse (and pricey) halls of academia across the Atlantic.

To others, it’s a step backwards, a return to a time when higher education was limited to the sons (not daughters) of the wealthy and entitled.

As a graduate, I, like most of the most disgruntled commentators on the subject, won’t be able to study at New College. Though my graduate status isn’t the biggest obstacle; I’m not sure where in my pockets I’d find the £18,000 fees.

But while I can understand the rage about the price, I can’t get too excited about the “controversial” news that the College will teach “exactly the same syllabuses as the University of London” at double the price. Because it’s only the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

If I were a student at the University of London, I’d consider myself unbelievably lucky to be able to study on a course deemed exemplary by a bunch of Britain’s brightest intellectuals – but not pay what they considered it to be worth.

Students are chuffed when a bottle of wine is on BOGOF at the supermarket. I’d say a half-price degree would merit at least a cheer.

But more importantly, I think the critics have resoundingly missed the point. It doesn’t really matter what the New Collge students learn. They could spend their days finger-painting and meditating, safe in the knowledge that the hefty fee thair devoted parents forked out for will net them A Degree From A Good University.

A university degree is – and has been for a long time – about the piece of paper at the end and also what logo is on that piece of paper.

Whatever the content of the course at Cambridge was, compared with the content of the course at the University of Nowheresville – even if the content was exactly the same – Cambridge is always going to look more impressive than Nowheresville on a CV.

Students, the savvy ones anyway, choose their universities based on prestige.

I’m sure there were plenty of universities around Britain with politics courses tailored to what I wanted to study, but one of my key considerations was how well my choice of campus would be regarded.

Place trumped course, because I knew few employees would be interested in the specifics of what I studied. I knew they’d care far more whether it was a Red Brick or a former poly.

New College could end up with a terrible reputation. If it does, the critics can pat themselves on the back and go away smug in the knowledge that education is not for sale even though a few fools spent a lot of money trying to buy it.

But if it does grow to rival Oxbridge or the Ivy League, applicants will want to go there because of that, not because of what they could learn when they get there. How many Oxbridge applicants study the module guides (except as interview fodder)? Most of them see Oxbridge, not any particular course, as the holy grail.

To answer Shakespeare, when it comes to higher education, there’s an awful lot in a name.

Education should be the point of university, but it’s never going to be, so long as league tables are published and universities focus on publicity and self-promotion at the expense of teaching.

Attacking New College for playing the system at its own game is not going to change that.


What LBJ could tell the Lib Dems about tuition fees

I interviewed a teenage Liberal Democrat activist in February, for a piece on youth apathy.

He told me that when out canvassing, the party’s stance on university fees was a real vote winner. It set them apart; it suggested they were fighting the students’ corner.

Now let’s recall what was said by Nick Clegg before the election:

“The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good, including for part-time students.

“Students can make the difference in countless seats in this election. Use your vote to block those unfair tuition fees and get them scrapped once and for all.”

“Only the Liberal Democrats are committed to scrapping tuitions fees altogether and oppose any attempt to raise them.”

“Despite the huge financial strain fees already place on Britain’s young people, it is clear both Labour and the Conservatives want to lift the cap on fees. If fees rise to £7,000 a year, as many rumours suggest they would, within five years some students will be leaving university up to £44,000 in debt. That would be a disaster.”

Lovely words from the deputy prime minister there. All the lovelier for the news that, as the BBC reports:

“Lord Browne’s review is expected to recommend scrapping the upper limit on tuition fees in England.”

It was always unlikely that the costs of university education would survive unchanged as the Government seeks to cut costs. Before the election, it became increasingly clear that this was a possibility under whoever got in – Labour or the Conservatives.

But it was a major plank of Lib Dem policy agenda before the election. They campaigned on it, they threw mud at their opponents on it.

Sure, they don’t seem too happy about going back on their promise. Plenty have promised to rebel, and it’s likely any rise will happen without a fight from the party faithful.

But it will probably be a fight for nothing. Clegg is in the coalition, and however bitter this defeat is it’s unlikely he’ll be willing to sacrifice his position to prevent it.

When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the Democrat president is said to have sighed:

“There goes the South for a generation.”

With this reversal (for it can only be called that), how many generations of the “yoof vote” will the Lib Dems be kissing goodbye to?

Gossip Girl: The Last Days of Disco Stick

The author James Frey was apparently the inspiration for this week’s offering, as the lives of all our Gossip Girls and Guys came shattering down into a million little pieces. 

 That was not before a guest-appearance from NYU alum Ga Ga.  As in Lady, in case Blair was wondering, not the first lady of Iran.  (Though wouldn’t that brighten up Middle Eastern politics…)!

 To sum up: following on from last week’s, ahem, shenanigans between Dan, Olivia and Vanessa, life in the NYU dorms was getting awkward.  Nate, in his new role as everyone’s favourite teenage therapist, promptly put pay to Dan’s illusion that a threesome with his current celebrity flame and his infatuated life BFF was a GOOD IDEA.

 For reasons frankly too convoluted and yawn-worthy to explain, the threesome (and Blair) ended up working on a theatre production together.  After a day of bickering, things came to a head when Olivia outed Vanessa’s romantic feelings towards Dan, as discerned by her during the aforementioned shenanigans.

 In fact, she had it wrong.  Vanessa was, typically, far more interested in a pretentious drama student (and I’d argue only has eyes for Rufus H anyway).  But as it turned out, Dan was now seeing Vanessa in a new, romantic light.  And so the Dan-Olivia romance came smashing to the floor, with her off to concentrate on shooting the appalling sounding ‘Bitches of Eastwick’ far, far away from the GG shores. 

 While this was going down, Jenny was out playing tour guide to a sultry Belgian boy (school Jenny? No?).  Yet as is so often the case with the sexy European characters dreamed up by American writers who don’t own passports, all was not what it seemed.  Mr Belgium was busy exploiting diplomatic channels for a lucrative drug dealing business, which both scared and thrilled little J no end. 

 Chuck, however, was having none of it and came to take Jenny out of harms way.  Isn’t it amusing how he has morphed from her almost date-rapist, to her sort-of-brother, to her white knight, in three short series? 

Character continuity is evidently not a focus in the GG writers room. 

 As for Serena van-der Lewinsky.  Where to start?  Well she tried her damned hardest to stop Tripping over (get it) but blondie has never been very good at not doing stupid things.  By episodes end Tripp had found out the shattering truth that his wife was behind the election-day set up, and was seeking (and finding) solace in Serena’s arms.

 Not before Nate had declared his unrequited love for Serena.  Now that his role in Tripp’s campaign for Congress was finished, and because he apparently doesn’t actually spend ANY time at Colombia, Mr Archibald has had time to think about his life.

 But, possibly because he isn’t yet able to think for more than five-minute periods, Nate’s decided he’s lonely.  He wants a girlfriend.  Any girlfriend.  He wants Serena, but it seems mainly because she’s the only girl he has seen all day. 

Probably if Blair, Vanessa or Jenny, hell even Dorota, had come to see him he’d be lusting after them instead.

 In the GG ranks, this was mid-level.  Too many plot strands that came out of nowhere (hello, as if Blair would ever be desperate enough to hang out with drama geeks – hasn’t she seen how uncool they always are in cringy American sitcoms?).

 Still some nice moments.  Jenny would read NYLON magazine (uber trendy NYC teen girl rag) and Dan would so do a celebratory, I’m so cool, street jig in memory of last nights steamy goings on.  Though for a far superior morning after dance, check out Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Bollywood style number in the fabulous 500 Days of Summer.

 And some corkers of lines, not least when Dan pays homage to his awesome mathamtical skills.  “Two girls. Four boobs. One Dan Humphrey,” he gloated. 

 A* for effort, Gossip Girl.

TV degrees and other true fictions

Outcry across the web because Harvard students are to study the TV show The Wire .

Said Sociology Professor William J. Wilson:

The Wire’ has done more to enhance our understanding of the systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the poor than any published study.”

Not everyone agrees.  “Just when you thought the show couldn’t be anymore overrated” wrote TheBaffler on the Huffington Post.  Another commented that if was a good show, if you had “to teach TV shows to rich and coddled post-adolescents”.  Over on Twitter, killahmcgillah is more forthright: “uh, #harvard students get to take a class on “the wire” next year? i knew that shithole was barely a real school”.

Well, apart from the fact that as I have previously commented, watching The Wire is more like work than play, I can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Ok, TV shouldn’t be a replacement for all formal academic study. I doubt I could become a successful journalist based on the lessons of the newspaper staff in The New Adventures Of Superman. And I’m pretty sure I won’t hone my catering skills just by following the exploits of Monica from Friends. Just because Dawson Leery was a great film-maker does not mean I will be.

Yet I can still see the benefit of Harvard students watching The Wire.

For one module of my politics degree at Nottingham University, I spent a semester watching TV. West Wing, Yes Minister, even The Simpsons at one point. We also watched movies like Mr Smith Goes To Washington and heaven forbid, read a few books, Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate being just one example.

The class, surprisingly very popular, focused on the representation of politics in fiction.  We used these sources as a starting point from which to ruminate on matters from how the non-political sectors of society perceive the political to the more philosophical question of whether life is essentially a social construct shaped by art.

All that from watching the work of the (great) Aaron Sorkin.

An unorthodox teaching method? Certainly. Useful and memorable? Very much so.

In arts subjects – perhaps science too though I’m no expert – we frequently refer to newspaper reports and commentary as source material. English students have long been using literature as a basis to consider pertinent social ansmits460d cultural questions.

So why not use unconventional source material like TV shows? It doesn’t mean dumbing down, and it doesn’t amount to a degree in David Beckham studies.

The reality is that we live in a worlds where the lines between the imagined and the actual are blurred. How many of us can distinguish between what Sarah Palin said in the run up to the 2008 election and what Tina Fey did as her TV alter-ego. Was Obama’s election aided by voters seeing ethnic minorities as the very capable Presidents Matthew Santos and David Palmer, from West Wing and 24 respectively, as successful holders of the office?

Fiction doesn’t come out of nowhere. Even the most outlandish story has some relevance in society – think Shelley’s Frankensteinian monster as a recreation of the outsider, alienated in a capitalist society, or The Simpsons as a comment on the changing face of the nuclear family.

Art imitates life. It’s only logical that life can learn from art.

What do you do with a BA in English?

So sang Princeton in the musical Avenue Q, in a ditty that spoke volumes to me and possibly every other graduate of a degree that falls under the broad umbrella of ‘arts’.

 For myself, the intention is journalism, but as demonstrated by a correspondence in The Times this week, not everyone who leaves with a good BA, or even a PHD, will find themselves in the career they might expect their degree to merit.

 Following Giles Coren’s typically rabble-rousing rant last Saturday about the rise of the ‘illiterate till popsy’, an indignant Emma Wilson, from Cornwall,  wrote in with this response:

“I have a BA from Oxford in English language and literature (I also won the college prize for English, a scholarship and a British Academy grant), an MA (with distinction) in Victorian Literature from the University of Liverpool (for which I won a second British Academy grant) and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Birmingham. I am currently working on the checkout at a supermarket.”

Clearly, no popsy.  But it raises the wider issue; why go to university (three times, in Emma’s case) to end up scanning a barcode all day in Sainsbury’s?  Or, because I expect there is a valid reason, recession or otherwise, why Emma is working in a supermarket at the present, why study something artsy-fartsy when you’re never going to use it in real life?

As a recent graduate, I have a good number of friends working in distinctly non-artsy jobs, from consultancy to banking, accountancy to law.  Some did courses like economics, maths or business, but plenty did history, geography, politics (as I did) or the inevitable English.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I fail to see how a knowledge of the inner workings of Hamlet, or an ability to understand Chaucer, will really help you in a job that centres around number-crunching.  The six hours of lecture time a week certainly won’t prepare you for the round the clock life of an investment banker.

For some professions, journalism amongst them, arts-related skills may come in useful; writing and commenting, or an understanding of society, politics and history.  The thing is though, they are not imperative – as has been reiterated to me several times in recent weeks, IT skills are even more indispensable in this oh-so-digital age.

That isn’t to say these aren’t worthwhile; pretentiously discussing Shakespeare can be great fun, for one.  But isn’t it time there was some realism injected into the debate?  Society has already deemed some courses ‘Mickey Mouse’ (I won’t elaborate for fear of offence), so shouldn’t we just accept it:

An arts degree doesn’t qualify you for s***.

In my opinion, arts graduates who are getting jobs in this economic climate, are getting them in spite of their degree course, and not because of it.

No one is going to employ me because I have a detailed knowledge of Machiavelli’s Discourses.  As a reply to Emma’s letter noted today, despite her stellar BA, MA and PHD, she “should count herself lucky”.

Writes Andrew Farmer: “Most people with her education would be deemed over-qualified for work on a supermarket checkout.”

Too qualified or under-qualified, what can one do with a BA in an arts degree?  Become an unusually literate till popsy?

I’d like to see the universities put that in their prospectuses!