Students, admissions, and Why Can't You People Use Commas, Anyway?

Posted by September Blue Monday, 7 May 2007

Tony Blair wants 50% of young people in higher education by 2010. There is discontent.

The longer version of that is more nuanced, both in the situation itself and in the political side-stepping involved in defining it. Specifying 'higher education' rather than 'university' allows for more wiggle room in terms of vocational and semi-vocational courses, many of which aren't university degrees in themselves. 'Young people' are the under-30s rather than just the school-leavers, so someone in full- or part-time work whose employer was willing to fund them through a relevant short vocational course would count alongside the 18-year-old going to Cambridge. Defined this way, we already have over 40% participation in higher education today.

The discontent is coming from several directions. Institutions grumble, justifiably, over not having the resources to give all these new students a place. The population as a whole grumbles because university education is getting more expensive at the same time as getting more important for the job market. And university staff grumble because God, we'll have to teach these kids, don't we have enough apathetic semi-literate slackers who don't belong at university already?

(Okay, we don't phrase it quite like that. But the sentiment's there.)

I'm split on this issue. On one hand, I don't like teaching apathetic semi-literate slackers much, and it's difficult to argue that increasing the number of under-30s in higher education won't bring in more students who wouldn't have been seen academically as university material in previous generations. On the other hand, I don't think those two things are necessarily related. At the very least, they're not cause-and-effect; 'students who aren't academically excellent' and 'students who don't want to be in the room' are separate, if overlapping, groups.

To give one example, I have a lot of students who can't use commas. I can grumble about it not being my job to teach them this, and, well, in an ideal world it's not, but in this world they and their misplaced commas are in my class. Now, inadequate comma use isn't a sign of low inherent ability: nobody's born knowing how to use a comma, and they can learn now if they weren't taught in primary school. The problem isn't with students who can't use commas, but with students who can't use commas and don't want to learn how. There are ways of teaching punctuation to people who don't know the rules, but how on earth are you supposed to teach it effectively to people who don't care?

So far, growing participation in higher education hasn't come from us getting more bright kids from across the social class spectrum, but with us getting more kids from better-off families. University is becoming something you do - something you're expected to do - when you leave school. The don't-care students aren't here because they want to study one subject in particular depth, but because they want the bit of paper with a degree printed on it. As degrees become more universal, it's the absence of a degree that'll make you stand out (and not in a good way) in various parts of the job market. My don't-care students see the education itself as a necessary evil.

As for the issue of inherent academic ability: well, I'd rather teach a class of students who had no idea what a comma was but always did the reading and always had something to say in discussions, than a class of students who could do the work standing on their heads but who sulk all through the course. Give me the don't-knows over the don't-cares any day.

There's a wider issue here about university and the class system overall, too. You, as a hypothetical eighteen-year-old student of professional parents, are currently about five times more likely to go to university than you would if your parents were unskilled workers. That's not hereditary intelligence there; that's something else. A university degree doesn't just mean you have the brainpower to cope with higher education.

Getting more young people into higher education doesn't necessarily mean we'll end up with more don't-cares than don't-knows, but changing our cultural expectations of university to mean 'that place you go to when you're eighteen if you're one of our sort of people' does. And if there's one group of students who shouldn't be at university, it's the ones who don't want to be here.