My message for Columbia’s protesting students

There are several frustrating things about American college campuses, just one of which is the sheer volume of column inches they take up. Whenever an American campus has an ‘occupation’ because the students want veto powers over foreign wars, the world media study their actions with great interest. Whenever a group of farmers or truckers complain about the loss of their livelihoods, whatever media attention does arrive comes from people eager to dismiss the protestors as know-nothings who are on to nothing. I told them that while they may know something, the chances are that people older than them know more Still, in recent months Columbia University in New York

Why the British think differently from Americans

When I first started teaching undergraduates at Harvard, the grading system the university employed struck me as very odd. Even ambitious students at top colleges in the United States see it as their job to answer any essay question in the most thorough and reasonable way. They regurgitate the dominant view in scholarly literature in a competent manner. If they pull this off without making major errors, they fully expect to get an A. And with grade inflation rampant in the Ivy League, they usually do. This attitude has had a significant influence on American public life. If you read an opinion piece in the New York Times or the

A beginner’s guide to witchcraft

Next year, Exeter University will offer an MA in Magic and Occult Science: the first of its kind in a British university. The new course has led to newspaper headlines about a ‘real-life Hogwarts’ and questions as to whether magic is as worth studying as say, economics. The course director, Professor Emily Selove, refused my request for an interview – with polite apologies, although one could hardly expect the convenor of Exeter’s Centre for Magic and Esotericism to be anything but esoteric. A similar tension, it turns out, is at the heart of the debate about the degree. For all the media snideness, the most serious objections come from Britain’s

In defence of drunken freshers’ weeks

I don’t remember much of freshers’ week at Edinburgh. Friends have helped to fill in the blanks. I vaguely recall a police officer handing out vodka shots to show how easy it was to fail a breathalyser test. A famous DJ had his set in the union cut short because he played the song ‘Blurred Lines’. It had been banned by student politicians. I have hazy memories, too, of my first interactions with posh English women. One assumed I must be gifted since I’d made it into university from a Scottish state school. Another asked if I was limping because I’d overdone it at the ‘introduction to reeling event’ (I

The great sociology con

My default mood at the moment is bleak despair, although it can sometimes be triggered into nihilistic loathing, which I think I mildly prefer. The most recent occasion this happened was last Monday when I drove through torrential rain to three retail parks in search of an item which – as I found out later – didn’t actually exist. While turning the car around to drive home I switched on the radio and Stephen Fry was bashfully admitting to some fawning sap of an interviewer how bloody brilliant he was. Triggered, right there, at the roundabout where you enter the old coal-mining village of Pity Me. It took ages for

Ross Clark

Is university still worth it?

Imagine that, just as Britain was closing down for the first Covid lockdown in the spring of 2020, you were 18 years old and had received an offer from the university of your choice, subject to good exam results. The grades proved to be no problem – with all exams cancelled, you were graded in accordance with your teacher’s estimate of how you would perform, and sailed through. But then the time came to go to university and you couldn’t – not properly, anyway. ‘Lots of students end up in jobs deemed to be low-skilled that would not need a degree in the first place’ You kept finding yourself imprisoned

In defence of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees

When someone asks ‘How are you?’ you have to assume your interlocutor is only being polite.Anyone who returns a ball-by-ball commentary about their aches and pains, work-life balance and reduced chances of summer fun thanks to the heat storm should immediately be sent to Coventry for the rest of time. That said, I am just back from wintry New Zealand where I have been in a Channel 4 series called Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins. Despite my pledge that I’d never do any more shows with the word ‘celebrity’ in the title, this one brought out the Bond Girl manquée in me and I couldn’t resist. I can’t say any

Where have the world’s highest temperatures been recorded?

Swing when you’re winning What are the biggest UK by-election swings? — The 1983 Bermondsey by-election saw a 11,756 Labour majority turned into a 9,319 majority for the Liberal party – a result widely attributed to the Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell, coming out as gay during the campaign. The Labour party under Michael Foot was also extremely unpopular – and had its then biggest defeat in a general election four months later. — The Clacton by-election of 2014 saw a 12,068 Conservative majority overturned into a Ukip majority of 12,404, with the Conservative share of the vote falling from 53% to 25%. However, it was unusual in that the Ukip

I’m proud of my rip-off degree

Whenever the right gets itself in a froth over ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, I keep my head down. You see, I am the holder of such a qualification: a degree in film and television studies. I rush to point out that my student days preceded the global financial crisis. There were so many jobs sloshing around that we could dismiss criticism of these courses as a tabloid trope.  I wouldn’t change my ‘rip-off’ degree for the world Let me describe the labour market that awaited meedja students in the mid-2000s. Every Monday, I’d pick up the Guardian at the student union. This was the old frumpy Guardian, before it slipped into a sleek little

The decline of traditional university study is no bad thing

University vice-chancellors will find some uncomfortable reading in their New Year in-tray today. Last month the chairman of accountancy giant PwC pointed out that more and more middle-class teenagers are walking away from old-style university studies and embracing degree apprenticeships and other forms of on-the-job learning. Already the number of those taking up degree apprenticeship is nearing 10 per cent of university admissions, and this figure is still set to grow. Although many such apprenticeships boast an element of university involvement and some even a qualification called a ‘degree’, their emphasis is quite different. Learning happens predominantly by working; the academy is not the centre of the process, but merely

Who’s to blame for our censorious students?

Without freedom of speech, you do not have a university. More than any other value, it is freedom of speech that most defines the university, that makes it a special place in society set aside for debate and inquiry in which speech and thought should be freer than in practically any other workplace or institution. And yet an alarming proportion of students seem not to have got the memo. A new study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London confirms what has been clear for some time: that today’s students, far from being rebellious free-thinkers, are if anything more supportive of censorship than the general population. The numbers are pretty

Is university good value for money?

Opinion polls these days don’t normally raise more then passing interest. But there are always exceptions worth a second look. One such was a YouGov survey out on Wednesday on what people thought about university finance. The big question was whether they believed nearly £30,000 for three years at college was good value for money. Among graduates, many of whom will have paid these fees, the answer (by a margin of well over two to one) was clear. They didn’t. For good measure, nearly half of the graduates polled thought most degrees actually left them worse off overall, against just over a third who thought they led to financial benefits.

Why is Durham offering training for student sex workers?

As a first year university student from a disadvantaged background, I know all too well the constant struggle students can face to make ends meet. Before starting my studies at Durham, I worked three jobs to keep food in my mouth and clothes on my back while in full-time education. Living in group homes and emergency accommodation, I saw those around me searching desperately for any way to earn a living, even if it meant endangering their health and their lives. So it was both surprising and disturbing to find when I arrived at Durham that the university’s student union was encouraging young people down an incredibly dangerous path by

In Bennington it was a badge of dishonour not to have slept with your professor

It is incredibly hard to convey the fleeting invincibility and passionate self-significance that we feel on the cusp of adulthood. Youth goes: the skin fades, the face slackens, the lower back begins to groan in protest. The world dims and we dim with it. Yet generally speaking, we’re as personally winded by that realisation as we are indifferent to it in others. When everyone suffers, no one cares. Why should I bother with someone else’s wasted youth? I’ve got one of my own right here. Still, I was intrigued by the appearance of Once Upon a Time at… Bennington College, an eight-part oral history of three literary superstars’ time at

Is Cambridge university ashamed of Winston Churchill?

When I first started at Churchill College, Cambridge, I was proud that I had joined an institution whose very existence was a testament to the legacy of a personal and national hero. As I walked around the college grounds, I felt that I was now part of a community that was much bigger than myself; a community partly defined by the life and times of our country’s greatest leader. Standing for the college toast at my first formal dinner, the words ‘To Sir Winston, and the Queen’ almost made me believe that my own life was now, in a small but important way, linked to the life of the great

America’s campus culture wars come for St Andrews

The University of St Andrews has been keen on American imports for some time. Americans make up 16 per cent of undergraduates, by far a larger proportion than any other British higher education institution. The university, hungry for foreign money (international students pay £25,100 a year, compared to £9,250 a year for English, Welsh and Northern Irish students) sends recruiters to high schools in the States to woo potential students. When I was at St Andrews a decade ago, I knew more Americans than Scots. Mostly, the university’s connections with the US have been good. Yet there is one American import St Andrews could do without: campus culture wars. Today’s Times

Let’s end the lottery of predicted grades

Try explaining the British university admissions system to a foreigner. They look at you as if you’re mad. ‘What you do is, you apply to university in January on the basis of what your teacher thinks you will get in a series of cliff-edge exams you sit in May/June called A-levels. Only once you get your results in mid-August – which is to say, about a month before you’re due to start – is your place at university confirmed. But that’s only if you’ve actually achieved your predicted grades. If you haven’t, you go into this thing called ‘clearing’ where you scrabble around trying to pick up places that might

Cambridge deserves better than Stephen Toope

Regular readers may be aware that in recent months I have been having a running-spat with a Canadian lawyer called Stephen Toope. I am rarely exercised by Canadian lawyers, but this particular one is the current Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, and he seems intent on running that crown jewel of an institution into the ground.  Since taking over as Vice-Chancellor, Mr Toope has been responsible for a wide array of anti-free speech initiatives through which, as I recently remarked in the Daily Telegraph, he appears to want to transform Cambridge University into something like the Canadian bar association, but without the thrills, or the pay. Anyhow – our spat came

Have we hit peak graduate?

The Tory party has turned sharply against the idea of ever larger numbers going to university. The reasons for this are both economic and political, I say in the Times today. On the economic front, the taxpayer is bearing more of the cost of the expansion of higher education than expected — the government estimates that it will have to write off 53 per cent of the value of student loans issued last year — and there is a belief that the lack of funding for technical education is contributing to the UK’s skills and productivity problems. Politically, the issue is that graduates tend not to vote Tory Politically, the issue

Studying history isn’t what it used to be

Is history in danger of becoming a thing of the past on campus? In recent weeks, Aston in Birmingham announced a consultation on plans to close its entire history department. Meanwhile, London South Bank has announced that its history course will not be recruiting students from this Autumn.  The condemnation was swift. Former regius professor of history at Cambridge Richard J Evans and author of numerous books on the Third Reich, said that history was ‘more important than ever’, since it provides the skills to look critically at the evidence and to distinguish fact from fiction’ in age of fake news and populism.  But as a history student myself, I’m not convinced a decline in