15 March 2012 2 Comments
Students are ever-more implicated in the marketing of their universities, often awkwardly displayed in costly ways. They appear on prospectuses and even on welcoming banners, where their eager presence and happy faces stand for institutional happiness, diversity and success. Their presence often represents a resilient endurance, where the successful face of the university shines on, despite the devastation of Higher Education. The personal and professional collide here, where standing for the university can also mean standing for and supporting your own value, now made public for a personal return (‘employability’, ‘International’ diversity and mobility). In the UK context, students are warned that National Student Survey scores attach to them, marking current status and future employability: ‘complete the survey, if you don’t, you lose too’. In a time of cut-backs, there is a heightened urgency to market your university – and yourself – via institutional reputations/credentials, to ensure that the map of campus, even if cut-back and under-funded, is still resilient and responsive.
As a visiting scholar at US ‘premier public university’, the University of California, Berkeley1 (2012), I see commonalities in the ‘happy, diverse student’ urgently engaged in disseminating value and distinction – their place is best, their choice correct. At Berkeley, even the ‘old’ history of activism, radicalism and institutional dis-engagement is re-invoked and made safe, or somewhat safer, in the name of variety, where everyone is present, and even the past is recast with future value. The ‘first’, ‘best’ and ‘biggest’ would be words likely to be found elsewhere – as on my guided campus tour – and I wonder about the room for improvement, gaps, and ‘failure’ in these well defined university maps.
Cynical sentiment was displaced by the undergraduate Biology student leading a tour around Berkeley campus on a sunny March morning; she lead us on a hour and a half walking trip, complete with historical facts, key statistics and noteworthy venues on and off campus. She was adding to her CV, her future employability, just trying to get by and facing life-long future debts. She excelled as a university representative and her enthusiasm earned her resounding applause as she related her weekly timetable, extra-curricular activities, and exam success. In being duly impressed, I was joined by potential students, who were informed about the 25% admissions success, and eager parents keen to find out what their child should put in her or his personal statement – how to make the special child become part of the special institution, to secure that special future. While choice, of e.g. activities, eateries and societies was described, I wondered how this process of alignment already demarcates a ‘good fit’ for future students, institutional stories, and societal success.
The sun was shining and it was hard not to ‘just believe’ as one banner, quoting words from a current smiling student invoked us to do. Our guide was believable, committed, determined. And isn’t that just what we would want from good students? On a sunny day, with an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge (this line of sight is university owned and protected), this all seems perfectly plausible. But the tour also hinted at presences and absences beyond these lines of sight. We tried to find the university mascot, a Golden Bear, on the first university building (1873); I put my glasses on for the task, confident that I could master it and also achieve. The bear, so the story goes, is a guardian, a mother bear who is watching over her cubs: many parents smiled and the journey from home to university was made safe and familial. The emergency poles, promising a 1.5min response time from on-campus police, if the button is pushed, also reassured of a 24/7 presence. Campus is made safe, students are located, and futures are confirmed as familiar.
As with many UK campuses, a park-feel is maintained and I strolled over Strawberry Lake via a wooden bridge. Echoing many University Open Days, eager parents pushed to the front and asked their questions – this time about trees, wildlife and plants. Protection and security is naturalised, even as the construction of this pervades the architecture and ecology of campus, also present in evoking scenic sounds, taste and smells (Australian Eucalyptus trees, ‘International House’). These scenes shifted as an all-in-pink team ran past declaring their search for a ‘Berkeley personality’; we were told of opportunities to join the cheerleading squad (and even imagine ourselves as having a ‘Berkeley Personality’). It’s enticing.
But just as you reach for that university personality, as I reached for the university door, we were told that all outside door handles have been removed after student protestors chained themselves to such handles not that long ago. The student of today has, perhaps, no choice but to align; to be un-obstructive to these directing pathways as ‘good guides’. My Berkeley guide does all this with good humour, intelligence and pride: she tells the story of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, who, sitting above the arched entrance bestows knowledge on those entering the library. Because Athena is greedy, as well as knowledgeable, she takes this away as students make their exits. Universities have this knowing, yet greedy, potential and strategies to resist this – in times of abiding doors (without handles) – are vital. Suspicious students, we are told, choose a different exit. But what would it mean for universities to choose another entrance?
‘A Smug Education’ (New York Times 9th March 2012) responded to US Republican Presidential Candidate, Rick Santorum’s attack on American colleges as ‘indoctrination mills’, which we are advised not to enter: in his call, Barack Obama was named as a ‘snob’ for urging Americans to go to college, with universities cleverly placed as unknowing, out-of-touch and pretentious, and ‘reality’ and hard work situated elsewhere. It is vital that the hard work of students and staff is foregrounded on and off campus, where broader conceptualizations of learning may also exceed the numerical count of entrance and (employment) exits, only conferred in following specific, and often expensive, university routes.
Yvette Taylor, Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, LSBU. Visiting Scholar, University of California, Berkeley (2012).
1 At Berkeley, approx. 64% of undergraduates receive some form of financial aid: in 2008-09, 37% of all Berkeley undergrads were eligible for Pell Grants (family incomes generally less than $45,000 a year). Berkeley educates more economically disadvantaged students than all of the Ivy League universities combined. Some 5,700 undergraduates received a total of $33 million in scholarships, many of them privately funded. In 2009, Berkeley received $649.46 million in research funding.