What would you tell a group of very bright 14-year olds about University?
Last week I had the task of welcoming students and teachers supported by the Department for Education’s Dux Awards Scheme, which pays for a year-9 student and a teacher from each secondary school to visit a Russell Group university together. I had 30 minutes, so I thought I would try and tell them something useful. I focused on things that I wish I had understood at their age.
I picked four things.
- They should be confident and ambitious.
- Our emphasis on research enables universities like Liverpool to educate students differently and, we think, better.
- University education is active, not passive: the quality of the labs and the library are more important than the amount of contact time.
- If they want to live up to their potential, they need to make choices that will stretch them, not choices that will bring easy success.
‘Anything I can do, you can do better’ was the title of a slide on which I talked them through my education and career as an example of how not to make choices. The title was prompted by my reflections on the choices I had made. Mostly they were either bad choices, or good choices made for bad reasons. I really do think that if these students use my wisdom to guide their choices, they will do a lot better than I have.
I explained to the students that I had tended to make safe, unambitious choices, partly because I was encouraged to feel insecure by those who advised me and partly because I was looking for easy options. For example, I chose to study medicine because, under constant pressure from my school to choose a career, I chose a university course that leads straight into a profession. Except that in my case it led straight to my changing courses after 18 months at Oxford.
Oxford was a good choice of university. I’m proud that I made the choice because my school discouraged me: they thought I was overreaching myself. I’m less proud of the fact that I chose Oxford because I had seen a film of Charlie’s aunt on tv and I liked the vision of undergraduate life it portrayed.
I changed course to Psychology and Physiology, which was better for me than medicine, but the reason I made the change was simply to be able to spend an extra year as an undergraduate. I chose a good University (Cambridge), and one of the best labs in the world to do my PhD, but actually I made the choice because my girlfriend couldn’t get a job near any of the other places where I had offers. There is more, but I think you probably get the picture. The students certainly did!
My other points were made with more conventional arguments but not all of them are universally accepted so I shall repeat them here:-
- The reason that research improves university education is, I think, because the true value of university education lies in the skills that the students develop and not in the knowledge they acquire. Involvement in research at a high level trains a range of useful analytical and creative problem-solving skills.
- In the fields that I know best, we expect undergraduates to begin by being independent in their search for knowledge. As they develop we expect them to be able to explain the basis of knowledge, to relate knowledge in different spheres and ultimately to synthesise new knowledge.
- Finally I stressed that they should pick the best University they can and in order to get there and profit from the experience they need to choose the traditionally ‘hard’ A-level subjects. The slides for the talk are downloadable.