Tuesday, 25 October 2011

League tables unsettling for UL students

The publication of the influential ranking tables in The Times Higher Education Supplement in which all Irish universities (including Trinity) have fallen outside of the top one hundred makes for unsettling reading for the student educated on these shores. The grim realisation that your parchment, from the clich├ęd and fabled land of not only the Saint but the goddamned scholar, might not actually propel you to the very pinnacle of world society should have you reaching for the Motillium.
What’s worse is: these days it may not even guide you calmly to the safe harbour of employment; hell you might not even make it to judge’s houses on the X factor at this rate. It all leaves that queasy feeling in the pit of the stomach. For a University of Limerick student this feeling is compounded by the fact that U.L is the worst university in Ireland. Surely the equivalent of being kicked in your already queasy stomach by a maddening crowd of Trinity graduates wearing a selection of heavy, brightly coloured clogs. Wait though, let it settle. U.L is the worst university in Ireland. Bottom of the list, not even an honourable mention, and no sign of a bun for bravery, not even a pat on the head, nothing. All we have is the unsentimental print, the black and white that puts our university in last place.
Rankings are not black and white though right? They are just a symptom of the pathetic Western need to rank and list the intangible, a deep seeded middle class desire to know their place in relation to everyone else. Education is not a goddamned time trial I hear you cry out as you munch down the Rennie. Rankings, smankings, big stinky lankings, my university is tougher than yours; I can tie a knot in a cherry stem and you can’t. Childish stuff these rankings. Student experience is the real key, Professor McIvorytower wouldn’t know a decent modern education if it punched him in his hairy ears. Student experience! That be the measure of the thing lads! Wait though, let it settle. U.L is the worst university in Ireland.
The student experience at U.L is a disgrace to the very notion of a university system. The problem is that the majority of the student body never seems to actually want to be academic in any way, ever. It is a fact that most lectures have less than fifty percent attendance; tutorials are literally empty and those that do show are a usually people who haven’t read the work. One of my overriding memories of U.L is the gawping silence in tutorial rooms. The majority of students I encountered have no real interest in their subject; many do not want to be there. Some didn’t even have the basics by forth year. You see, this isn’t the way it is supposed to be, the rub is: university isn’t supposed to be a chore or a slog. You are supposed to be there because you love your subject, not because you didn’t get business in U.C.D and thought a degree in computer systems might pass away 4 years, make Daddy happy and keep you in Ugg boots. U.L is a laugh, have a few pints and a naggin of vodka and off to the Lodge to get the shift. It’s all about the daytime TV and the 2.2 degree, I grades and getting away with it, “sure tell her your Granny died to get an extension and we’ll all head down to The Hurlers”.
Now, of course U.L has some magnificent students who are the antithesis of those referred to above but my point is that their voices are lost, that percentage that come in every year that I believe could propel U.L to great things are almost always silent voices. They come; they take their 1.1 or high 2.1 and leave without cementing the image of all their hard work and genius on the collective unconscious of the U.L community. Why? Why is my overriding image of U.L one in which those students that do not want to be there (who are literally pissing away taxpayers money that could be better served to help save all those tiny babies up in Crumlin) are the giant dancing elephants on centre stage? Why is U.L the university known all over Ireland as a place for: “ A great laugh”. My giant foam finger of blame points away from the individual student, who ultimately, for all the vagaries of the C.A.O system, is there on merit, away from the highly educated academic staff and squarely at the Students Union.
The S.U (of which this publication is a mouthpiece) is possibly the cliquiest place outside of an American high school movie. If a Limerickite was judged by their student representation every student would be a white, middle class, politics student under the age of 22 that dresses in a stupid yellow t-shirt. Where are the mature students? The foreign students? The S.U is supposed to be representative. How can a 19 year old white girl from Tipperary represent a middle aged African student or a disabled Muslim scholar? I know many students (myself included) who have contacted the S.U and its publications for a multitude of varying reasons without as much as a response. Just who is the S.U representing? Who decides what voices are heard? The first thing the S.U does at U.L (remember orientation) is tell you what a great laugh it is here. The S.U should be renamed the great laugh committee. This is of course part of their job and an important part of any student’s life but the over emphasis on the social side of university life creates a discourse where the more important academic work that should be done by any organisation claiming the title of university is secondary. It also serves to isolate mature and foreign students who come from a culture where this brand of pub or sports based socialising is completely foreign. The great laugh should be a release, a reward, but not an integral, firmly foregrounded part of being a student. Space should be opened up for the formation of scholarly friendships and associations outside the pub/club/sports hall and inside an academic environment. The notion that university is a time when you become weed smoking, compulsively partying, alcoholic is a myth. The S.U, instead of deconstructing this stereotype of what it is to be a student, re-enforces it at every opportunity. In the eyes of the S.U class bonding equals class party, a great laugh. Clubs and societies are an opportunity to meet people and have a great laugh at the club party. The S.U takes no time to nurture or enforce good studentship. No attempt to bring in other cultures or points of view to the wider, predominately young white student body. There are only weak attempts to bring together students for reasons other than to drink. You know, it’s not even the drink. Hell, I like a goddamned drink better than most. It’s that the S.U fundamentally does not care about academic performance. The S.U fundamentally does not care enough about those who don’t conform to their stereotyped image of the hard partying, scraping by, white, heterosexual, middle class student.
Sure, they make a nod toward academia, social inclusion and diversity every once in a while but their main function, it always appears to me, is to uphold the outdated, clich├ęd image of what the social side of university life should be. This is not the way it has to be though. It is emphatically not natural that the students union’s time should be taken up with social life/ welfare as sole concerns. The silent minority of U.L students need representation too. We are those that sit in class having done the readings, those that go to all our lectures, those that love our subject, we are the students whose families can barely afford to eat let alone keep us in Vodka, Ugg and Abercrombie, we are the foreign students, the Muslim girl, the Chinese boy, and we are the mature students that you laugh at. We don’t just want mentoring, free condoms and a cup of tea. We may not be brave enough to say so but we want to be proud of U.L. We want it to be more than just a great laugh. We want it to be the best university in Ireland. We know that it can be. We also know that you do too. Ultimately it is only the S.U that can alter the discourse, only the S.U that can create an environment where academic achievement trumps getting the shift and having the Craic. The S.U needs to look at itself and its mission closely and see if it is doing enough to foster an academic environment, enough to include disabled students, gay and bi-sexual students, foreign students and mature students in university life, enough to demand that the majority of the student body are exposed to different points of view, enough to ensure that young impressionable freshmen are not swept up by the recycled hackneyed stereotype of what it means to live a student lifestyle. Only then can real change come about. But wait though, it’s settled. U.L is the worst university in Ireland.

Darragh Patton graduated from U.L with a 1.1 in English and History and is currently studying for an M.Phil in literature at Trinity College Dublin. He does not wear brightly coloured clogs.

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