Reflecting On University

24 May 2015

Unless something crazy happens, I did my last ever academic exam on Wednesday wrapping up three years of an Economics degree. I’m posting these thoughts with some immediacy so I can’t get accused of my opinion being poisoned by my final grade (which I find out in mid June).

Before attending York, I was extremely pro-university attendance. It seemed like the unequivocal best thing to do for anyone who was competent enough to pass. With my brother now thinking about his further education plans, I’ve been forced to honestly review my own experiences. And being honest, I can’t effusively endorse it like I could.

Part of the problem is me. I chose Economics because I was good at it at A Level and in 2012 I was looking at a career in finance. Nowadays, I get endless questions why I didn’t do a degree in Computer Science and in hindsight that’s probably the better choice. At the time, though, it didn’t make any sense. Although my apps were doing okay, it wasn’t anywhere near a sustainable level. It wasn’t until February 2013, when Cloudier launched, that my iOS contracting took off in a meaningful way. By then, it was too late to change — I was already half way into first year of my Economics course. As my iOS work continued to grow, my future thinking diverged away from finance.

The problem is university, at least in the UK, is inflexible. In the US, there’s a ‘major-minor’ system which lets you dabble and move between things. Although I still liked Economics as a subject, some of my personal motivation dissipated. I was too ignorant to realise I couldn’t predict the future and that my interests were not fixed in stone. I don’t think my case is uncommon. Doing one subject intensively just leads you to want to do other stuff with the rest of your time. When those hobbies become viable career prospects, its only natural. With the UK system, if you have a change of heart, you can either drop-out completely or start over with a new degree from year 1.

University would better serve students if there was more choice and variety in what you could learn. One subject only feels old-fashioned. I would also feel happier about the whole experience if first year didn’t exist. Calling degrees a ‘three year course’ is false advertising. First year is largely a repeat of content learnt at A Level taught by lecturers who would much rather not be teaching remedial economics. Many people can pass year one without doing any revision (and, in many cases, without turning up to lectures) because it is so trivial. This is exemplified by the fact first year marks don’t count at all towards your final degree classification. It really feels like filler content and a waste of time.

Considering the amount of money students pay to attend, you would at least think that the university would get the exams right. Wrong. Over half of the twenty exams I took over the last three years had errors. Not just typos or small printing errors, but serious structural problems that often made questions impossible to answer. A classic example was when a maths test referred to a printed table of data that simply wasn’t printed on the paper.

Aside from errors, the entire uni exams situation is a mess. Assessment is supposedly standardised by university policy. In reality, modules come down to the whims of the lecturer. Marking is opaque and seemingly arbitrary. Some modules offer past papers with answers, some modules offer past papers without answers, other’s offer no past papers at all.

An open secret is that lecturers can’t be bothered to make new questions every year so they reuse (almost) the same papers every year. This laziness is probably why many don’t like releasing last year’s questions. As such, passing exams becomes more about optimising the system and learning answers by rote than actually understanding the subject. Much to my disappointment, remembering stuff is still the number one skill people need to succeed at school. If you want to actually learn stuff, you don’t need to go to university.

A Level and GCSE exams are regulated by central exam boards. University exams should have similar control. It’s hard to explain just how ridiculous some of the answers expected of students are. Rather than set thought-provoking novel exam questions, I am convinced lecturers opt instead to make obtuse mark schemes that organically filter students performance into nice statistical bell curves. As modules have no outside regulation, it also makes it impossible to compare degrees across universities. A degree in two different universities are not equivalent. There is no way to truthfully compare their value. If I ever get into position where I am hiring workers, I won’t filter on grade classification as so many companies do. It’s not a fair assessment of ability.

Exam regulation is part of overall levels of teaching standards. Not all, not the majority, but a good portion of lecturers I had were just not good. There are bad and good teachers at school too but the spectrum is way more exaggerated at university. Lecturers primary role is research, not lecturing. I don’t know what teaching training they have to pass to run a module but it doesn’t work. Some lecturers are just straight up awful at actually teaching anything. Lecturers offer office hours every week where you go and talk to them about stuff. The best offices hours are from the best lecturers (naturally) so you are still kinda screwed for the modules with bad staff.

The worst bit is seminars. My seminars across the three years were ran almost entirely by PHD students. If lecturers do get teaching training, it’s abundantly clear that PHD students get none. Seminars could be great (small group lessons) if they were ran by competent people. Instead, you do a problem set in preparation for the seminar and then the seminar tutor goes through the answers. The few seminars that were taught by lecturers were useful as they could explain concepts and solution techniques. In general, I went to seminars because I had to — missing seminars leads to intervention — not because I deemed them that helpful.

Still, is university all bad? No. It’s okay. For one thing, if you want to start a decent career in Britain you need a degree. Whether I think university teaches anything of value is irrelevant. Beyond that, although teaching is patchy, there is benefit in an instructor telling you what to read and what to learn. Lecture notes greatly reduce the technical nature of source material so that it is actually understandable. After all, if university offered me nothing at all, I would have dropped out.

If governments regulated university in the same vein as compulsory education, standards would be forced to be way higher. Ultimately, I think a good way to sum up my feelings is that my favourite parts of uni have nothing to do with the actual institution. The social elements are great and being around nice people every day is what keeps you going. I had gone in thinking the central teaching parts would be of higher quality. I leave underwhelmed on that front.

Please be aware that all of the above is based on the experiences of one person at one university taking one degree. Maybe other places are different and I was unlucky. Maybe you get what you put in and put more into other things, hence liking that more and liking uni less. Anecdotally, everything seems very similar.