Tuesday, 14 July 2015

'If I only knew then what I know now'

Yesterday I was lucky enough spent the day with 40 bright, keen and motivated 17 year olds, as part of the Royal Geographical Society 'Bridging the Gap' day. It's an awesome project developed by the Slowstreaming boys (in their days jobs!), providing an opportunity for aspiring geography students to find out more about the step between school and university geography, and ask any questions they have about applications, universities, courses and student life more generally. I simultaneously look forward to and dread these kind of events. They're full of great kids with lots of enthusiasm and questions and aspirations but I know, at some point, a student will tentatively approach me and say...

'Erm, sorry, did you said you study at UCL? What do you think of it? Do you like it there'

...and I'll get into a bit of a tizz, because I don't really know where to start, so I just sort of yell 

'NO, don't do it!' 

whilst I gather my thoughts, ready to destroy their dreams, and develop some sort of reasonable explanation. 

Yesterday the victim of this conversation was a 17 year old boy. Luckily, he'd just heard me reveal some of my opinions and experiences in a Q&A session, with my largely gloomy comments in stark contrast to the positive, constructive experiences of geographers from Lancaster, Royal Holloway, Exeter and Plymouth, so I think he was semi-prepared. 

It always goes the same way: it wasn't what I signed up for. Today's university students are consumers, buying into universities and their promises. Long gone are the days where we don't have a 'right' to demand more, demand a service that is better, or actually the service that was advertised. I remember going to the UCL Open Day, and subsequently a group interview day, where they suggested that I should expect 8-12 hours of contact per week. Next term, the first term of my third year, I should expect 4 and 4.5 hours on alternate weeks. I will be paying approximately £125 per hour to sit in a lecture theatre that may not seat everyone on the module, where I may not be able to connect to the WiFi, where there will almost certainly not be any sockets from which I can charge my laptop, and where the lecture may not even be any good (or may not have a PowerPoint...or may not even turn up). The boy stood, silent, and stared at me. I could tell he felt awkward, and suddenly I did too because I felt like I'd just ranted at him. And all he said was 'I went to the open day and I thought they were a bit cold, a bit corporate, I didn't think they cared about me'. He'd spent 3 hours at UCL, mostly in the Geography department. He hit the nail, at least my nail, on the head. 

Yesterday's situation was a particularly interesting example, since the day was supposed to replicate a number of seminar-style sessions. One of the students in my session asked, 'so is this what a geography seminar is really like? You sit here and chat and do activities with the lecturers?' and I had to say 'I don't know because I've never had a seminar with a lecturer'. In my two years at UCL, I have attended seminars with a postgraduate student (who was fantastic and gave me more time and effort and commitment than any lecturer ever has) for one module out of 16. It's not the most facilitating environment. I, personally, would be hesitant to put my hand up in the middle of a lecture and ask a question about something I don't understand; and I know I'm not alone in this because, god forbid, if anyone ever does ask a question, everyone just stares in shock and amazement. Lecturer usually included. Sometimes the lecturer is so unprepared for said question that they get themselves into a fluster, don't answer it, and send an email reply at a later date. I don't think any lecturers, except perhaps my dissertation supervisor, know me by name. For the purposes of my course, I am zcfalwa, a code, an examination designation, a debtor. 

I spoke to another student who, with a lot of confidence, announced to me that he would be applying to UCL. I asked why. He said 'because it's one of the best'. He was challenged: what does being 'the best' mean to him? I could see much of my 18 year old self in his response; well, it was a top university according all of the various newspaper university guides. True. UCL's research is unmistakably impressive - they publish huge amounts of research all the time. But that doesn't mean anything for him, or I, or our university experiences and this tends to be the factor that pulls UCL right up to the top of the rankings. Then I asked if he'd looked at the student satisfaction. According to Unistats, 49% of UCL Geographers are 'satisfied with the quality of the course' - not overjoyed, amazed and astounded, 'satisfied'. Only 19% were 'satisfied' that feedback on work helped them clarify their understanding. I, personally, find this pretty appalling. I don't need to pay £9000 a year to read journals; if I am not learning from the one of the only real one-on-one conversations (be they written, typed or verbal) then what's even the point? I'm having a similar situation with my exam results. The exam period finished 46 days ago. 32 days ago I was told I had passed my second year. I am still awaiting my results (which the university clearly have to know that I've passed), and they cannot confirm when these results will be published. I don't really think 'sometime towards the end of July, or maybe at the beginning of August' is satisfactory. In fact, it's rubbish. I feel like George left that conversation rethinking what it was to be the 'best', and I wish someone had pointed that out to me three years ago. 

The Q&A session of the Bridging the Gap day, I always think is the most useful. It's the opportunity for students to ask the questions they won't find out from the universities, the open day, the prospectuses. We were asked 'what has been your favourite moment of university so far?' and I panicked. I'm not saying that my entire university experience has been 100% dire and that nothing positive has come out of it, but nothing really stuck out for me. I couldn't think of one particular thing about university, apart from the friends I've met, that has been really great. I listened to my peers talk about their exciting field trips to Iceland, USA and Sicily...and my memories of Slapton Sands didn't compare. I learned about a friend's experience in halls, which he described as the best year of his life with his best friends. My 3 months in halls are a blur of being ill, eating sweetcorn, having a damp floor, and the water being turned off once a week - with some fun days and nights out with friends dappled somewhere in between. When I got to me, I said 'reaching the middle of second year and realising that I kind of knew what I was doing now; that university wasn't quite as baffling as it had been'. I don't know how good that is, really. It's more that it represented a time that wasn't bad. Next I was asked 'what would change if you could do university again?' and the first thing that came to my head, and what I said, was 'go to a different university'. What I wish is that I hadn't been blinded by supposed prestige; that I'd not been so naive; that I'd spent more time visiting other universities and looking at other courses; that I'd not let me ego get the better of me and demand that I went to the most academic university I possibly could. What I wish is that I'd had this opportunity, where a current student had warned me, and I hope that I'd have listened. 

I've spent a lot of today thinking if only I knew then what I know now, how different things would be. I am not saying that the last two years have been wholly awful, because I've met some lovely people, I've experienced living in London, I've lived with friends and randomers and my boyfriend, I've been forced out of my comfort zone, I've learnt to look after a house plant, I know how to use buses, and I've done some good modules - I have learnt some stuff. It is unfair to say that absolutely everything about my UCL experience has been horrific; there are some incredibly intelligent and passionate geographers there, and I've had some really cool lectures and lecturers. But it kind of ends there. I find the ethos hard to respect. I find it difficult to see the institution as anything other than money-grabbing, businesslike and unethical. I have never once felt like the students and the learning are at the heart of UCL's objectives. I have never felt like a person they want to invest in (...or arguably they should be investing in because I've paid them £9000 to do that). I feel like a number, a code, a profit-making mechanism. Yesterday was a great opportunity to tell the prospective UCL geographers that (if they hadn't already heard about or experienced the open day protests last week). I don't want other students to make the mistakes that I have. UCL may be happy lying to its prospective students, but I will never lie for them. 



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