It’s remarkable how easy it is to get a degree from this university. The expectations of the students, the standards we are meant to meet, are microscopically low. Five hours of class a week, three assessed assignments, and two exams – this is my semester. I will repeat that exact pattern three more times, and then graduate. A St Andrews joint degree in English and Philosophy boils down to very little work, a minimum of effort, and four years of patience.
So why the four years? It would not be preposterous to expect ten hours of class and six assessed assignments a semester. Or twenty hours of class and twelve assignments a semester. Those are not absurd standards to meet. I’ve certainly worked harder than that, in the past. I bet you have, as well.
If we were allowed to double up on classes, surely we’d earn the right to graduate twice as fast. Why does the administration insist on stretching our time here as far and long as possible? It’s peculiar, to say the least. Thought provoking, to say the most.
I’m an American. I’m more familiar with the American education system than the Scottish or English models. I readily confess this. I am also aware that the English and Philosophy departments differ significantly from the other schools of St Andrews. Perhaps (in fact, almost certainly) the workloads for Economics, Astronomy, or Mathematics honours are astronomical in comparison. Those aren’t the schools I’m interrogating here. My focus is on the Arts schools.
I have a close friend at Boston University, studying pre-law. Or, I should say, he studied pre-law. His university allowed him not only to double up on classes, but even triple up. In fact, there was no limit to how many credits he could pack into a semester. He got his degree in two years. I seethed with envy. Now he’s working on a second undergraduate degree “for fun”. He’s no more intelligent or harder working than many of the students I’ve encountered at St Andrews. He just found a more suitable, more efficient, venue to work within.
Studying at St Andrews is expensive. I’m not talking about the university tuition controversies – as an unaffected American, that’s not a topic I’m qualified to discuss. What I am talking about is the extreme expense of housing in this town. Most students living outside of halls – which, overall, is most students at St Andrews – probably pay between £300 – £500 pounds a month for their rent. This ranks the town of St Andrews as among the most expensive university towns in Europe.
If a particularly motivated and inspired student were allowed the opportunity to double the classes they could take, and therefore the credits they might earn, then they could graduate twice as fast, and save half of the money on housing and tuition they would have otherwise spent.
There is no question that student debt is an issue at almost every university – whether in America or Britain. What I’ve recommended might not eliminate student debt outright, but it would certainly help significantly.
So the question is, why does the University of St Andrews expect so little of us? Why do the administrations of many university schools, particularly those of Philosophy and English, insist on devaluing the worth of the degree they issue? Why can’t we work harder, and earn more?
I think there is something terribly wrong here: a dysfunctional and hypocritical system too readily bought into, and unquestioned. As editor of the Viewpoint section this year, I have tried my best to preach the gospel of Doubt, of Suspicion, and Scepticism. The topic I’ve confronted in this column is one I’ve constantly found myself butting my head against. Maybe I’m not alone.