Should the graduation ceremony be abolished? Most university students in Britain would rise up in indignation and anger – as they should have when the Cameron government tripled the undergraduate fees in 2010 or when the fees were introduced by the Blair government in 1998 – if this was ever suggested. Dressing up one’s key moments with fanciful wrapping seems to be more important than the complaints and grievances that will be discussed in this text; and joy and satisfaction for one’s achievement should be pursued without further concerns that would spoil the magic of the rite of passage. Looking for a reason to celebrate I find several reasons that cut my smile short. Reality emerges behind the vanishing magic.
Universities are turning into elite clubs
In most British universities conversations about the exorbitant fees (£7,000 – 9,000 per year from approximately £3000 per year prior to 2010) are almost non-existent. The 50,000 protesters who gathered at the student demo on November 10, 2010 (where an adequate minority shook the facade of governmental tranquility by trashing the lobby of the Tory headquarters), mobilised from various universities across the country, are but a fraction of the total number of undergraduate and postgraduate students which at any time is more than 2 million, 400,000 in London alone. The average British university campus is an oblivious, enclosed park for those who can afford it; life goes on pretty much as before the 2011 education reform and talk is centred around classes, gossip and useless university surveys which mainly aim at the upgrade of the institution on the ranking tables.Most student unions are spineless groupings which promote corporatism and consciously and actively exclude alternative ideas and comments. The universities which attract radical student groups or tutors are numbered (SOAS, Birkbeck, Royal Holloway, Goldsmiths and a few more) and this does not compensate for the large majority of the rest for which the words occupation or political discussion are unknown. When there is a planned strike or picketing by the staff, the management makes sure to inform students by email that the university will do everything possible to ensure that classes will not be disrupted. More than offering quality education (I will return to this), the university seeks to establish itself as a business in order to attract more customers, to maintain the reputation of an institution that secures high rates of employability for students. It certainly is unable to promote changes that would bring into question glamorous, official-looking, useless ceremonies.
Just as no one speaks about tuition fees, no one speaks about the six-figure salaries of high-ranking staff either. With more educational emails, the management informs students about the appointments of a new vice president, avoiding any talk about the (assumed) usefulness of the position and presenting all the virtues and achievements of the individual to be appraised by all. They are also particularly vocal in promoting political propaganda in favour of the government; e.g. students are invited to join important festivities, such as the royal wedding. The email read (not verbatim but the idea is just the same): “We invite you all to celebrate the royal wedding which is a happy occasion for us all as a nation”. This method surpasses the educational function of the institution towards an intrusive attempt at ideological guidance.
University degrees mean nothing out there
You get to feel this every time you step out of the university grounds. If, for example, you don’t have enough money to get on the bus home and there’s nowhere to top up your bus card within a radius of two kilometres, the driver is not going to let you on no matter what you’ve been discussing in class ten minutes earlier. In short, you’re nobody no matter what knowledge you’ve acquired, no matter how thoughtful comments you can contribute to an important classroom discussion. This is not to say that you should be able to pay for your bus fare by reciting Shakespeare to the driver, but yes, this is to say that the introduction of radical thinking in the university class would have contributed to decisive steps towards egalitarianism, such as free public transportation, the abolition of fees or the improvement of the quality of education. Lack of radicalism in the university is not to be attributed to the institution itself alone, as it depends also on the social circumstances as a whole; an inert, ignorant population will fill the universities with inert, ignorant students. But the structure and aims of the university as such today are ideal for wiping out connections between the academia and the outside world of strife and struggle.
Ultimately,the university is good at patting the student on the back for getting good grades and then opens the gates to the wilderness of the real world, where getting a job becomes increasingly impossible, and without the hope of putting one’s knowledge into practice (let’s not forget the Physics PhD graduate who in January 2013 committed suicide in London after only able to find job at a call centre). The university itself (certainly the management and certainly not all the tutors, some of which are sincerely critical against the university system as it now stands) holds full responsibility for the glass-tower status of the academia by unquestionably endorsing governmental decisions on education and by largely acting as its mouthpiece. The majority of the students is to be held responsible as well for their apathetic stance towards this situation; there are even opinions expressed by students (and not actively contradicted by others)against the right to all to higher education, while certain students can’t afford to buy all the necessary books (it should be frustrating for all to hear the brightest student of the class to admit this). After all the above,the management impertinently asks students, through surveys or otherwise, of their opinion about the improvements that need to be made to the university, and invites them to fancy graduation ceremonies.
The quality standards
It’s not true that one learns nothing or very little during an undergraduate degree, but the reputation of British universities and the money one is required to spend on fees are far from equal to the quality standards (graduate degrees are significantly improved but let’s stick to the undergraduates at this point). The degree is a three-year series of classes with minimal use of exams (only once or twice during the whole degree, at least in Humanities), based on essay writing. Full time study consists of two yearly and two semester modules per year which means that classes take place just three times a week throughout the year (for those who don’t need to work while studying this is a laughable number of classes). You do eventually learn how to write essays and to use at least part of your judgement to comment on your chosen subject (this is not absolute, as even third year students are often heard asking the tutors for tips about how to write essays), but the amount of work and effort needed to pass or even get first-class grades, equals significantly less than one’s full mental capabilities for study and self improvement. An increased number of modules and a much more demanding programme of studies, with more exams and intensified learning is a necessity that the management of universities is unwilling to undertake as quality education is obviously not their priority.
There is no way I would be persuaded to wear the robe, because a)it is obligatory at most universities (you’re not allowed at the ceremony with your normal clothes), b) it has to be rented (yet another thing you have to pay for), and most importantly, c) it is an elitist habit, part of the assumed glamour of the affair, which is already ridiculed by the gross inconsistency between the practice and the purpose of the institution.
Nevertheless, there is one great thing about British universities: the many well-educated, well-trained, intelligent tutors who should be left alone to do their job, free from bureaucracy, hierarchy and the fear of dismissal.
"To increase desires to an unbearable level whilst making the fulfilment of them more and more inaccessible: this was the single principle upon which Western society was based." (M. Houllebecq) "a personal possession is something you want because you want to use it, private property is something that you want because others want to use it" (D. Graeber) "there are only three institutions that have survived more or less intact from the European Middle Ages-the Catholic church, the British monarchy and the university system." (Graeber)