Disgusted of academia: a university lecturer bewails his lot

There’s a beautiful moment in I Am the Secret Footballer (2012), a Guardian column turned whistle-blower memoir, when the anonymous author is momentarily freed from an enveloping depression caused by his career as a professional sportsman. He’s at Anfield to play against Liverpool in one of the biggest games of the season when he picks up a pristine, unused football before a warm-up drill and, inexplicably, sniffs it. With that inhalation he’s transported from the corruption, pressure, scandalous abuse and monstrous egos of elite sport and for a few seconds becomes a kid uncontainably excited at the prospect of kicking a new ball around his council estate. This Proustian reverie,

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

Aristotle’s advice for young protestors

In his Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle (384-322 bc) sets about identifying the various headings under which you can be persuasive about any topic. One of the topics is the nature of the young, and as today’s students pick up their loud hailers to make demands about events more than 2,000 miles away in alien cultures which despise most of them, there is much of interest in the similarities and differences. In general, Aristotle says, the young, not having lived long, are inevitably ignorant and lack experience. So they are inclined to do whatever they feel like doing, and are easily satisfied because their wants are not overwhelming. They also lack

Drama students: how universities raised a generation of activists

39 min listen

This week: On Monday, tents sprung up at Oxford and Cambridge as part of a global, pro-Palestinian student protest which began at Columbia University. In his cover piece, Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, explains how universities in both the US and the UK have misguidedly harboured and actively encouraged absurdist activism on campuses. Yascha joined the podcast to discuss further. (01:57) Next: Bugs, biscuits, trench foot: a dispatch from the front line of the protests. The Spectator’s Angus Colwell joined students at tent encampments this week at UCL, Oxford and Cambridge. He found academics joining in with the carnival atmosphere. At Cambridge one don even attended with their

How universities raised a generation of activists

It was only a matter of time before America’s student protests spread to the UK. In Oxford, tents have been pitched on grass that, in ordinary times, no student is allowed to walk on. The ground outside King’s College in Cambridge looks like Glastonbury, complete with an ‘emergency toilet’ tent. Similar camps can be found at UCL, Manchester University and more. There have been no clashes with police, but that may yet come. In Leeds, for example, pro-Palestinian students tried to storm a university building, leading to bloody clashes with security guards. From the Sorbonne to Sydney University, the movement has gone global. Its ostensible cause is hardly ignoble. It’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

How much do students drink?

Union booze Several universities have renamed freshers’ week ‘welcome week’ in an attempt to dissociate it from heavy drinking. How much do students drink? – A survey last year by the group Students Organising for Sustainability found that 81% regard drinking and getting drunk as part of university culture. – 53% reported drinking more than once a week. – 61% said they drink in their rooms or with other students before going out for the night to a pub or club. – 51% said that they thought getting drunk would ensure they had a good night out. – 13% said they took illegal drugs. Round the houses Councils are to

A study of isolation: The Late Americans, by Brandon Taylor, reviewed

The Late Americans, Brandon Taylor’s second novel, follows the lives of a group of friends living in Iowa City over the span of a year. Early on, Seamus, a poet completing his master’s degree, imagines an ‘indifferent God… squinting at them as they went about their lives on the circuits like little automata in an exhibit called The Late Americans’, and this is a fine description of the novel. Each character is the focus of a chapter, and we watch as Seamus, Fyodor, Ivan, Timo, Noah, Bea, Fatima and Daw’s lives overlap, in bars, seminar rooms and dance studios, while they negotiate their place in a world determined by their

A level students have been failed again

The world was turned upside down in 2020. Schools closed, shops shut, and planes were grounded as the global health crisis hit the world. The great institutions of our society seemed to crumble under the pressure of the pandemic. This was particularly the case for the UK’s education system, which is still failing students 18 months on. This morning, students will be receiving their A level grades, after a year of learning interrupted by constant lockdowns. I can sympathise with students this year – I experienced first-hand the devastation caused by last year’s A level algorithm fiasco. After the algorithm gave me a B, E and U, I was rejected

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

Locked-down students are paying a heavy price

Students are the forgotten victims of lockdown. Having worked hard to achieve their grades, undergraduates have been consigned to their bedrooms to learn online. There’s been no socialising, freshers fun or the chance to make new friends. The only thing that has been the same for the Covid class of 2021 are sky high fees. Finally, the government has announced that all university students will be able to return from the 17 May. While some undergraduates may be relieved to get some much-needed clarity, most will be deeply, deeply frustrated. Many students are asking why universities did not open again when schools did. They are also wondering why they can currently go

The trouble with Erasmus is not just the cost

It was curious to see the explosion of outrage over the UK no longer participating in the Erasmus scheme. We were told it broadened young people’s horizons by sending British undergraduates to study at a European university. We were told our young people are being deprived of this opportunity. But having spent my pre-politics career working with young people, Erasmus and deprivation are not things I’ve ever associated with one another. The outrage is largely coming from a collection of the firmly middle class and affluent anti-Brexit folk – TV broadcasters and QCs among them. They had been on Erasmus themselves and expected it to be a rite of passage

The trans debate could cost this Cambridge porter his job

This is a story about a man called Kevin Price, who was until last week a councillor and who is, for now at least, employed as a porter at a Cambridge college. The story illustrates two points. First, political conflict over trans rights and women’s rights is far from over, especially in the Labour Party. Second, people who say the wrong thing in this debate can put their livelihood at risk. Mr Price last week resigned from Cambridge City Council. He had sat as a Labour councillor since 2010 and was once the council’s deputy leader. He resigned rather than follow the Labour Group whip and vote for a motion

Students who catch Covid may be saving lives

It is counterintuitive but the current spread of Covid may on balance be the least worst thing that could happen now. In the absence of a vaccine, and with no real prospect of eradicating the disease, the virus spreading among younger people, mostly without hitting the vulnerable, is creating immunity that will eventually slow the epidemic. The second wave is real, but it is not like the first. It would be a mistake to tackle it with compulsory lockdowns (even if called ‘circuit breakers’), whether national or local. The cure would be worse than the disease. If you cannot extinguish an epidemic at the start, the best strategy is for

Ofqual boss’s algorithm malfunction

Gavin Williamson has taken a lot of stick for the A-level exams debacle, but Mr Steerpike thinks we should perhaps look to Roger Taylor, the chair of Ofqual, who also happens to be head of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. Not many people think that using an algorithm to decide exam results was the best option, but it becomes even more questionable when you realise that Taylor led a study last year, warning of algorithms propensity to ‘make decisions which reinforce pre-existing social inequalities’. The study states: ‘concerns are growing that without proper oversight, algorithms risk entrenching and potentially worsening bias.’ Unfortunately, concerns hadn’t grown enough to prevent

My charter of fundamental rights

I was chatting to a young medical student, a very bright chap from West Africa, who was nonetheless perplexed by a certain element of his course. The puzzle, for him, was the point of offering cervical smear tests to men who had transitioned to become women. The course module was very clear, he said, that these people must not be left out, despite not possessing a cervix. I hope a later part of the course teaches him how to behave while carrying out a cervical smear test on a non-existent cervix, so as not to cause offence. Poke around a bit with that spatula thing in whatever has recently been

How to survive the Eleven Plus: a parents’ foolproof guide

How is Britain seen by outsiders? What marks us out? Humour, self-deprecation, our changing weather, frequent cups of tea. But there’s something else that foreigners say after a spell here: the UK is a place where couples without children worry about where their unconceived children will go to school. As a Scot, I used to think this a bizarre English affectation — until my eldest son announced he’d like to join his friends and take the Eleven Plus set by grammars and private schools. Would I let him? Only then did it dawn on me why prep schools get their name: to prep children for this specific exam. To borrow

Freshers week is torture for an ageing academic like me

A fellow academic once said that working at a university is one of only a few places where you grow older while everyone around you stays the same age. It was this remark that occupied my mind this week as I trundled through campus, smiling and greeting our ever-younger-looking first-year undergraduates. The whole idea of ‘Welcome Week’ was no doubt conceived by a university bureaucrat with good intentions. But having experienced it first-hand, and as the one doing the welcoming, I can only conclude that it is torture. Once a year, like clockwork, we older folk must be visibly reminded not only of the relentless passing of time but also

A bruising encounter with Cambridge cry-bullies

There’s a Tracey Ullman comedy sketch about the extreme and ugly form of political correctness afflicting the youth. It’s set in a self-help group for ‘people who are so woke [i.e. attuned to left-wing grievance politics] they are finding it impossible to have any fun at all.’ A newcomer to the class tells his story: ‘It started with the little things — signing an online petition; going to a march. Well, before I knew it, I was writing to the Guardian about LBGT representation in the Harry Potter books…’ At this point, a prissy young woman interjects: ‘Which is shocking by the way.’ The therapist (played by Ullman) calls her

How de Gaulle prevailed against the student mob

Fifty years ago, ‘les événements’ kicked off in Paris. The students’ complaints were fascinatingly trivial. They were bored stiff at their hideous new university in Nanterre. In a move which would now get them trolled by Time’s Up, the left-wing male students organised a ‘sexual riot’ and marched on the girls’ hall of residence, demanding to be let in. The authorities panicked, and closed the campus, so the students occupied the Sorbonne. Within weeks, strikes and riots threatened to bring down the French government. The BBC rightly reminds us of those May days, but what of the sequel? Tell us, please, of President de Gaulle’s ambiguous, theatrical flight to the