99 problems but critical thinking isn’t one of them

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As I was writing the other day, I’ve been participating in the Level Up Conference 2019 over this past weekend, 2nd and 3rd March. On the first day, the discussion panel was alright [Climate¬†Change¬†Talk]. However, the intriguing topics seem to have been kept for the second day.

3rd March brought two panel discussions, none better than the other, with issues in the focused interest within the University of Aberdeen. ‘Scottish University of the Year – A deserved title?’ and ‘Women in power; change in the world’. Both exciting to witness and I’m eager to review the points. I will do so in separate posts as I may want to refer to them in future, separately. So here is:

Scottish University of the Year

Like any devoted to critical thinking individual, I’ve taken notes which rise some issues on what has been said, but I must begin by saying that I’m quite happy that the panel didn’t just praise the university, they did accept to see downsides and issues. The moderator managed to include key questions but, some of them were answered politically, in the sense that the answer was turned to be something but not on point. All the comments I’ll bring up will tie in together at the end, so bare with sort of a bullet-point report until all this will make even more sense at the end.

One of the very first questions was how many hours should a student dedicate to their studies, as the previous question was what is the main scope of the university, and everyone agreed that is much more than studying, is socialisation, co-curricular, time for oneself to relax, etc. So the answer came from what I concluded that could be a great lecturer, Dr. Ilia Xypola (in International Relations – politics).

SnapShot from the videos I’ve taken

So I’m not arguing with her, but I’ll point out that the reality is far from what she explained. Ok, so she said about 600 a half-session, that would be 40 hours a week, reasoning that, as a full-time student, the university is your job, thus 40 hours a week is roughly what a full-time job is. I couldn’t agree more, but she underlined that ‘a¬†module…’. That is what I thought, initially, is a mistake, she meant the whole. But then I remembered my UG degree and I’ve gone here [new tab] and took a 3rd-year Politics and IR course. The lecturing and tutorials themselves are 33 hours (the average for UG courses is 30), so you’d be left with about 7 hours to write essays, further readings, etc. But that is one¬†course¬†only.

In UG students have, on average, 4 courses. That is 40×4, 160 hours a¬†week. So I come to critique the ‘full-time-like’ because as far as I’m concerned, studying is 4¬†full-time¬†jobs¬†at¬†a¬†time if done ‘as it should’ with the provided readings and good individual research. So let’s not ‘exaggerate’ and I’ll say, out of my experience as well, need about 100¬†hours¬†a¬†week¬†only¬†to¬†study¬†and¬†be¬†in¬†lectures, that is still more than two full-time jobs, almost three, not counting the commuting time. But no one from the panel raised an eyebrow at her statement, which is alright, because I think that unless you really wanted to pay 100% attention, the ‘a module’ might have passed right by your ears. But it will be ironic by the end because this ’40 hours a week’ was introduced into the next Q&A in the panel. So let me tell you more.

SnapShot from the videos I’ve taken

One of the following questions was related to the students’ quality of life. And Maggie Chapman (Rector and a great person as far as I’m concerned) has commented about the accommodation issues back in 2014 when a couple of first years were put in hotels as the university accepted more students than it can handle. Now, that’s alright, but she said how the university works hard to provide great accommodation and then mentioned that private¬†landlords sort of ‘take the business’. Now, my critic to that is one and only, as I disregard that sharing with 7 people is by far fun in student accommodation. Well, the university may strive for quality, but the student accommodation from the university is much¬†more¬†expensive than almost everything that private landlords offer – so, to begin with, it’s not value for money at¬†all. Anyway, this will tie in with the rest by the end as well. So let me tell you even more. One of the other questions was relating to mental health and how students are stressed and whatnot. Harry Chalkin (AUSA Welfare Sabbatical Officer) commented on how students must have part-time work to actually afford basic needs (food, as one of them).

And he said, well, handling the 40 hours a week (we said that’s about 100, yeah?), students may put 15 to 20 hours a week in part-time working. Now let me say this, from my very own experience through three types of jobs I’ve had. Student jobs are in hotels, retail: food and clothing, kitchen porters, etc., and these pay next to nothing, sometimes lower than credible because they pay you less if you’re under 24, that is when you are an UG.

https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/articles/national-minimum-wage

So: the cheapest university-provided accommodation (share with 7 people and it’s in Hillhead) is ‘from ¬£89 a week’, that is ¬£360 a month, adding to that food about ¬£150 a month unless you’d eat instant noodles 4 packs for ¬£1 all the time. Let’s say ¬£100 for food. So, nothing else such as books and clothing and toiletries is ¬£460. To have this money when you’re under 24 with the latest rate 2018/19 you would need to work 63 hours a month, that is 16 hours. But since one actually spends about ¬£200 for food and toiletries a month and the average accommodation is actually ¬£400 a month (add all up, divide at the number, multiple with 4 weeks). So that is ¬£600 a month for literally only living. That is 82 hours a month, 20 hours a week. Adding the commuting for this, make it 22 hours. And let’s leave it at this, enough maths. But I will only add that, everyone that I ever knew in my UG and were just living, no fussing, was working a minimum of 25 hours, with the commuting time of 3, so 27 hours a week. Disclaimer: yes, we are calculating for individuals who need to fully support themselves, as they are not only the vast majority but is what the so-called system should allow: students with an affordable background to join the university (& keep in mind we are international students, there are conversion rates involved).

So let’s sum these up: students would need about 100 hours a week to study and 25 to work, regardless of travel time, socialisation, let alone sleep. That’s 125 hours from a week that has 168 hours in total! That leaves 6 hours a day for anything else, which should be sleep because we’d be absolutely terribly tired. It’s quite some balance that the university provides, is it not? If you sleep four hours a night you catch some time.

The next questions were about how the university improved, that they offer critical thinking skills and confidence. Which is entirely true, except the confidence part. How do you think that overworked, scared for their grades students will ever be confident? Students who are constantly told about co-curriculars when they barely hang on to assessments and have to ace their courses to have one chance to go to further studies or leave the student jobs after graduation? But let’s say that’s not the majority… I’m joking, it is, I can vouch with five years experience and the huge amount of students I’ve met on the way. Anyway, further questions were about the university staff could sort of track students’ mental states, for example through tutorials and such. I would be very happy for that to be possible, but there’s not much chance since each tutor sees hundreds of students and then has their own issues to deal with etc., it’s not their fault, they wouldn’t really want to and shouldn’t be asked to take on jobs which could be avoided if the university would actually provide equity and a real sense of equality, not just political correctness. We don’t need PC, we need true equity! But that’s complicated, meritocracy – just a fine joke (see the book from Jo Litter: Against Meritocracy. It’s absolutely brilliant!). From these kinds of questions, the moderator opened the Q&A to the floor. And I swear I loved this chick who took the mic and said:

[not a direct quote] So, what did the university actually do to deserve the title, what’s the innovation? trust me, I was about to hysterically laugh and applaud her. Because I’ll tell you what it did: nothing, nada, rien, nix…

They claim that their alumni have those attributes, that was the panel’s answer, that the title is deserved because the alumni have the attributes. And I am like: that’s great! But what about the current students? Are they surviving this? Is anything actually happening? Because when I’m 25-26 and quite sure what I want to do is great, yeah. So the changes are not within, but only that the face is kept.

The face, it’s¬†all about the face, innit? Grand. Now that is not an issue, and face should be very important, because that’s why we choose a university, for the face, for what it will mean that our diplomas will be issued by it and not another! But what should also matter is whether the university actually improved, if it really provides a better environment, a more inclusive environment, and I’m not talking about political correctness because that is pure crap in academia right now.

Academia needs equity, not political correctness. When it will provide equity, satisfy contemporary needs such as smart classrooms and current topics rather than waking Marx up for four years in a Social Science UG degree, when the university will realise that exams being 80% is nothing but theft on students’ mental health, and that each student has various skills and not everyone can write 6 pages but they may be better at presenting or team working, when it will individualise the process and when they will care about who the student is, not how much (s)he is paying, then they could go on talking about political correctness. Until then, the university shouldn’t win anything because the alumni are working in different places or because they have critical thinking – how do you even measure that?! Like, cool story, but how do you measure it and how are you sure that those great jobs are taken by alumni because of the university and not because of their own connections – because that’s my only impression since we all know that this world works on connections and nothing else.

Now let me be nice as well, I’m quite proud that it turned out to be the Scottish University of the Yeah, I mean hey, it’s for face. But I am so sick of doing stuff for face only that I have¬†to comment it this way. I mean that’s what the uni taught me, to critically assess. Ironic and funny. I love my uni, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be here otherwise, I consciously chose to remain one more year and I am really anxious and upset in a way that I might leave after. So I do love this university. But that doesn’t mean I’ll give it credit for what’s not happening or I’ll play along. No, I’m here because this university taught me to challenge everything and that’s why I’m proud it has the title. Because it doesn’t deserve it when you tackle each bit of it, but you wouldn’t know to assess each bit if you didn’t study here. Fake news everywhere and this university doesn’t bite. It has 99 problems but teaching critical thinking isn’t one of them!