The third week of teaching has almost ended and already there are secretive, hushed meeting between freshers about our place here. Why are we here and What are we doing? Dare we even voice such questions? However, with the not so recent proposal by our Vice Chancellor to raise our fees considerably, these questions have taken on a renewed sense of urgency. Such meetings take place in quiet corners of college, whispered between meals or as our heads hang low after a withering tutorial.
These aren't simply metaphysical questions voiced by introspective students but questions requiring real consideration. Thinking I was alone in wondering about the greater implications of my course, I shushed my blasphemous thoughts. It wasn't until some of my friends voiced similar concerns that I realised it is a widespread, almost normal feeling at this time of year. Naturally, any new environment requires an adjustment stage and many students are able to shrug off this sense of confusion and simply knuckle down. This is a tried and tested technique but only works if you can fully absorb yourself in your studies. This tends to separate the zealous, passionate students from the more laid-back type for whom study is something one does the day before the tutorial. Some of us want to have fun too! I fall somewhere in the middle. Mindful that we are fortunate even to have the time to consider such problems, I talked to some like-minded students about this feeling of doubt or concern and the response was quite interesting.
The consensus seems to be that we are required to think of ourselves not just as willing, eager students thankful for any received learning, but, increasingly, as educational consumers for whom an education is a certain hybrid between a bankable commodity and a lifelong journey. Increasingly, many students are demanding to know how what they are being taught is relevant or useful in developing their adult selves. These questions take on particular force within the humanities. Understandably, some students struggle to make a connection between an analysis of Jane Eyre through Foucault's theory in Discipline and Punish and the 'carceral network' (don't ask) and how they can obtain a job at Citibank or even in the government sector. Learning for learning's sake seems far too indulgent in this post GFC economy. Others, such as PPE students, are much too busy planning how they can infiltrate the Oxford Union but I've heard even a few of them voice their concerns.
I would argue that students today are in something of a double bind. Unable to progress in the real economy without tertiary qualifications and a whopping CV, we must strike a delicate balance between commitment to our chosen subject and a constant awareness of how we can apply what we are learning to the real world that is forever looming large on the horizon. Education and learning do not start nor do they cease at university, they act as conduits towards particular areas and fields of inquiry or skills. Increasingly, students cannot simply read their subject in isolation, they have to constantly locate their subject within a broader, social sphere where it can be used for material gain or add to the field of human knowledge. We have to show that not only are we competent in our field, but that we are aware of how this competency can be utilised in any other field we put our minds to. Such jargon as 'transferable skills' and 'key competencies' are even leaking into our subject handbooks. These reminders are also evident in the almost immediate calls from the Careers office to attend fairs, information nights or CV clinics and the daily barrage of emails reminding us how we can groom ourselves for future employment.
So how do students manage this balance? Some manage to find a niche or club which allows them to explore their interests whilst still affording them time to study, others think that a First will suffice. There are no easy answers and such whispers will continue and, indeed, I think it is healthier for students to be frank and candid in their concerns than to worry in silence. An education is not an end in and of itself and though sometimes we think we are living in an ivory tower, the real world is really just around the corner.