THE locusts have descended on Ikea, stripping it bare of mugs, saucepans and pillows. All across the country, harassed parents and tetchy offspring have been preparing for a mass migration that rivals the great buffalo stampedes of the Wild West. Or, to put it another way, first term at university is about to begin.

More students are going on to higher education in the UK than ever before. There’s been a rise of over 6000 on last year, bringing the total to a little over 448,000. But, as students’ families wave them off, and young people face their future with a mixture of trepidation and excitement, universities have a weighty burden of responsibility to live up to expectations.

With Covid still omnipresent, it would be unfair to expect teaching to return immediately to normal. As a result, many of this session’s classes will continue to be taught remotely as well as in person. I am due to speak to a post-graduate seminar next week, which might be done online or – as I hope – face to face, but I won’t know till nearer the time. The last-minute nature of such decisions indicates the enormous pressure universities face, as they juggle lecture-hall logistics with public health dictats on top of the run-of-the-mill business of achieving academic excellence.

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Needless to say, they don’t always succeed. The quality of teaching by some departments at the height of Covid was so patchy it led to class members demanding refunds of their fees. Yet these rumblings of discontent were nothing new. The pandemic has merely exaggerated the growing sense of dissatisfaction in some quarters, for whom it has become obvious that the cost of their education is not being matched by the calibre of teaching.

Things have come a long way since the days of interminable, inaudible lectures in which an elderly man spoke to his toecaps for 55 minutes, wheezing like a bagpipe as he strode back and forth on the podium, while those of us in the auditorium fought a losing battle against sleep. Nor was there any point in complaining. You were expected to make up for a teacher’s deficiencies by raiding the library.

To be fair, most of the teaching I had at St Andrews was good, or even excellent, but some was antiquated. A friend at Glasgow was taught by the same professor as her mother, 25 years earlier. When she retrieved her mum’s old lecture notes, she was aghast. In quarter of a century he had not changed a word.

Yet although it is good that students can now easily register complaints, you sense disillusionment setting in. While hordes continue to head off to the nation’s lecture halls, their allure is starting to fade.

Netflix’s hit comedy, The Chair, captures the dilemmas with which today’s students and staff struggle. Set in a preppy American university, it’s a witty parody of academia as bitter issues of diversity, equality and entitlement turn a once soporific campus into a combat zone. Early on, an ageing Chaucerian expert takes student assessment forms and, after a quick glance at a slew of stinging remarks and personal insults, sets light to them.

Who wouldn’t rather do that than read withering critiques, not all of them just? Yet responding to student opinion has become an integral part of university life, as important to its smooth functioning as the knee-cap is to a leg. Indeed, so much attention is paid to feedback that department heads, deans and principals can seem positively frightened of their young charges. It might be revolution they fear, but it’s more probably redundancy.

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The fiasco last year over the renaming of Edinburgh University’s George Square is just one example in which terror of being considered out of step with a woke agenda led to immediate appeasement of protesters, without wider consultation. This was swiftly followed by international ridicule.

Yet while universities can appear overly sensitive to a vocal minority, they are also guilty of putting the institution’s reputation ahead of academics or students. In the past they were revered, often crusty places, devoted to an ideal of intellectual rigour, even if they didn’t always reach it. Now, they are part of a slick and highly competitive global industry, in which fund-raising and PR are every bit as important as the quality of degrees they confer or the respect and care given to academics.

If nothing else, Covid has sharpened awareness of the need to earn a living after graduation. In the US, far fewer young men are applying to go to college than women. For them, it’s a luxury they simply cannot afford. With the UK government now pushing apprenticeship schemes, in which students can study alongside their training, the stranglehold of universities on the time and money of young people will inevitably weaken.

In the same week that Mary Beard questioned whether studying the classics was any more worthwhile than carpentry, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Highlands and Islands had to apologise for referring to “vanity courses”. By this, he meant subjects that don’t qualify you for a job.

And there’s the rub. With the exception of vocational courses, university degrees, especially those in the arts, don’t come with any guarantee of walking into a good job. Where baristas and waitresses used to be wannabe actors and artists, now they’re graduates whose qualifications have turned to ash.

The days when going to university represented the best future for those of an intellectual bent are long gone. At one time only 5% of the population expected to get a degree. Now universities have become a rite of passage for the majority of school leavers. When the incomes graduates earn are set against the cost of such a lengthy education, it doesn’t make economic sense.

Although The Chair is played for laughs, it is essentially a love letter to learning. It is about the joy of teaching, and studying, in an environment where there is time and space to think. For all its mockery, the picture it paints is idealistic and inspiring. But there’s a reason why universities are known as Ivory Towers. They stand aloof from the real world, with their head in the clouds. In the current climate, I’m not sure that’s a selling point.

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