Size matters: lessons learned at Oxford

Size matters: lessons learned at Oxford

Once upon a time Leiden was considered the best university in the world. What might it take to return Leiden to those heights? We should begin by asking the question: What is a university?

Questions about class size usually center on differences between large classes and smaller ones – 30 students compared to 20 – and the respective outcomes (smaller is supposedly better). But imagine classes of 1-3 students. As the reader may know, Oxford and Cambridge use the tutorial method for basic instruction of undergraduates. Once a week students meet with a tutor – a professor, lecturer or doctoral candidate – to go over a written assignment or set of problems. Tutorials serve the purposes of mastering a given topic whilst preparing students for similar written exams.

For the past two years I have been such a tutor whilst writing my dissertation. I have come not only to respect the pedagogy but also to see something of the “core” of the university in the relation between teacher and student and their commitment to seeking knowledge together. Perhaps the following reflections on the university can contribute to the current debate about education at Leiden University.

Size matters.

Growth does not always mean health. In education bigger is rarely better (A university of 100,000 students?). Those who tell us that 50 percent of pupils should get a university education are imagining a university that is more of a “career development center” than a guardian and sponsor of knowledge. If 85% of Leiden’s matriculated students are supposed to take their degrees, then standards will be lowered and class sizes increased (to allow inter alia for re-takes of courses and exams). That is exactly opposite to what would improve education.

Class size matters, but not only in the numerical sense. It is also important that the sizeable majority of students are capable. A small class of students who cannot read, write or do basic mathematics is far worse than a large class in which the majority can. Since there is no glut of capable students, the numbers entering university must be limited, for instance, by exams either before admission or immediately thereafter.

Size of workload matters.

If the average students can drink more than three nights a week (even during exam time) and still pass, then the workload is too light. I live next to a pub in the center of Leiden. One would expect Fridays to be busy. But every night of the week students are out in large numbers. And they take ski or sun trips during term – sometimes as part of official university groups. There are exceptions but generally students need less, not more time, so that they can focus on their education. Assignments should be bigger, exams tougher, and re-takes severely limited.

The size of our expectations matters most of all.

A politician friend of mine says her one political goal is to lower people’s expectations, for then they will be inclined to accept reasonable goals and be happier with the outcome. In short: expect less of the university and you may get more. The university cannot fix the failings of secondary schools to teach reading and writing and arithmetic. If it tries, this will allow schools to continue to pump out undereducated students. Moreover, university degrees won’t be worth having if the university is a tool for social engineering, emancipation or correcting of historical wrongs, rather than for the cultivation of knowledge in capable individuals. The university’s job is to pass on, perfect and discover knowledge (in that order). These are enough to expect of the university and hard enough to accomplish. Anything else is superfluous.

Avoiding a dystopia

Perhaps the university as I imagine it has ceased to exist, and we cannot expect even these modest goals from it. These last forty plus years since the student protests have emancipated the university from many ills: unnecessary hierarchies, bad traditions, rampant nepotism (although jobs still do tend to go to “friends”). The one thing the revolution failed to emancipate it from is ignorance. In fact, in spite of declining standards, the university seems convinced of its own excellence. If this continues, those who love knowledge and the search for it (i.e. philo-sophers) may need to find some way for the university to continue in spite of the institution. Perhaps the real, underground university could exist in programs of tutorial education with talented students and dedicated teachers (taken part in voluntarily and after office hours, of course) – as it did behind the Iron Curtain.

There is a saying in Africa that the economy grows when the government sleeps. Must we come to the point that knowledge grows when universities close? Or could we perhaps take a lesson from what works well elsewhere, once again making Leiden an educational lodestar?


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