Watching the television, you could be forgiven for thinking that the young people now entering university for the first time are completely feckless, to use a word harking back to the Scots for lack of worth. Ardent radio and television reporters are rushing from place to place, from ancient, red brick, to glass-plated institutions, searching for pale faces at windows, signs saying HMP
, and random anxious parents hoping to rescue their offspring from imprisonment. These are the images presented by the distorting mirrors of the media; expect them to continue and to emphasise the unusual and sensational. The truth, of course, is more mundane.
Leaving home, for whatever reason, is one of the great turning points in life, ranking with first going to school, getting married, having children and retiral. It is stressful both for the leaver and for those left. It causes both fear and excitement. You are moving to an unfamiliar environment with people you do not know, to learn new skills and obtain a new understanding. Will you be up to it, will you find new friends, how will you cope with providing for yourself, cooking, housework? Your personality may make you turn inwards and ask these questions of yourself, or outwards to look at the new opportunities you are being offered. There will be competition and, again, this may be feared or looked forward to.
To all this now is added the fear of COVID-19, though very fortunately this is almost always a mild condition in young people and often seems to cause no symptoms. Everyone is different but all have within us these contrasting emotions. Those of us lucky enough to have been to university will remember them only too well. In my case, I have now seen my children and three of my grandchildren so far make the same journey, and have also spent much of my career teaching students in universities.
Some of the young victims of media attention that I have seen on the television have been persuaded to complain of lack of face-to-face teaching and/or lack of ability to enjoy the 'university experience'. It is worth examining these complaints. There are two types of face-to-face teaching, lectures and tutorials. The former is rapidly going out of fashion but remains the best way of passing on reliable new knowledge efficiently to large numbers of students. This requires real dedication by the lecturer to preparation and delivery, and the emphasis in universities is to reward research more than teaching.
As an example, after retiring from Aberdeen, for a decade I voluntarily gave a short series of rather popular lectures twice annually for Edinburgh University, until they abruptly informed me that they had stopped all lectures, without a word of thanks! It is not surprising that the standard of lecturing in universities has fallen, so today's students are probably not missing much.
A major difference between school and university has hardly been commented upon. In university, learning is largely up to you, and time spent alone on a computer in your room or a library is the major part of this. Isolation is necessary for much learning. Now, in this new world, lectures can easily be delivered online, pre-recorded on your computer, and watched by students without the inconvenience of getting out of bed in the morning for a 9am start. Thank goodness for computers.
I have discovered that the process of pre-recording lectures is time-consuming and demands attention to detail that may well improve the general standard of the lecture. While the tutorial is less efficient than the lecture in terms of numbers and thus more demanding on the time of teachers, it is much more rewarding for the students from the direct interaction of their and the tutor's minds. Happily, tutorials are also easily provided now online and even I am becoming familiar with the various media used for this. Thus, I hope that isolated students will, having got used to it, be able to access personal face-to-face teaching in their courses.
The 'university experience' is, I believe, an advertising gimmick devised by universities forced into competition for students with each other in pursuit of the commercial ideal imposed on them by successive governments. The purpose of universities is, at its heart, to draw out or educate young minds, by allowing time for learning and by teaching, example and discussion. While for some this best occurs in an atmosphere of scholarly contemplation, for most it is facilitated by social and sporting interaction, by the development of hobbies or outdoor activities. These are the sauce to the main dish, but they are usually the foundation of life-long friendships and for some they provide the defining memory of their days at university.
Both the learning and the social element of university life continue over three or four years and it is profoundly to be hoped that the new world of COVID-19 will only provide a minor hurdle to be overcome as we are progressively allowed more freedom. In the short term, friendships are now forming, and young people are getting used to this new world and finding ways to overcome the difficulties. I do know that the teachers and administrators of universities have been working extraordinarily hard to make life as normal as times allow for their students.
If you are a student reading this, you may wonder what life was like for the writer in the good old days when he first went to university. Well, we didn't have COVID-19 but we did have TB, polio, influenza and meningitis, though I don't remember being very concerned about these potentially fatal conditions and can understand today's students being rather unconcerned about possible illness also. We didn't have the fees to worry about and beer was half a crown (25p) for a pint.
I took a trunk with my belongings on a train from Liverpool to a posh place in the south-east of England. I knew nobody down there (people spoke in a funny accent, said Ya instead of Yes, and talked about going up to university rather than down). My lodgings (digs) were about a mile from the college, a single room with a gas fire in a tiny draughty terrace house ruled by a tyrannical elderly lady. The door was locked at 10pm, the toilet was in a shed at the end of her small back garden, and the only running water was in her kitchen. She brought me a jug of hot water in the mornings but over the course of the first term I discovered showers and breakfast in the college and started to make friends. There was a curfew at 10.30pm throughout my three years there but after a rather busy first year in digs I was accommodated in college and life became much more sociable. The problem of the curfew was solved by learning where to climb over the college defences.
Those were the days of slide rules and logarithms for calculations, and we hadn't even heard about computers, though we later learned that in nearby Bletchley Park there was one that had helped to win the war. My friendships were indeed life-long, as sadly many have now been curtailed by death, but my memories of student days are very happy ones.
I am sure that most of today's new students are coping with their problems with good humour and some stoicism. I feel for them but am sure they will in time look back on this period with some pride that they endured and overcame the difficulties, made firm friendships and set themselves up for whatever life later handed them. I hope they will find, as I have over a long period of relative isolation through the pandemic, that many good-spirited people are working hard and often with little reward to help them.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own