This page can be downloaded as a pdf file here.
As I said on my ‘Welcome!’ page, the students whom I met taught me that the world of the university looks very different from a student’s viewpoint than it does from an academic’s.
Especially to a new student it can seem extraordinarily baffling. You are in a place where the rules are not clearly explained to you; you are told to read widely but nobody shows you what you actually need to do when you hold a book in your hands; it isn’t explained to you how to work out what an essay topic or exam question is asking for, so you don’t know what you have to do to get good marks for the work you’re going to submit; and you are given warnings against plagiarism by people who seem to have no comprehension of what is entailed in learning from other people.
(I think students who gain a first-class degree do so chiefly because they have been able to intuit – ‘suss out’ for themselves – the rules of the game: so they’ve had less need to have these rules spelled out for them.)
I drew an important conclusion from this. Students need ‘consumer guides’ to university. They need guides to the environment in which they find themselves, guides to the language and expectations of academics: maps and a compass and dictionaries, so to speak. In particular, they need a heuristic, a questioning approach to finding out what they need to succeed. Since 2004, when my first Student-Friendly Guides were published, many more publishers and authors have arrived on the scene, offering guides of one kind or another. But without exception these are ‘instructional’: they tell you what to do to get good marks. My standpoint is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ formula, and indeed these books do not all give you the same instructions, while different academics, in their different fields, have different ideas about what a good essay or dissertation looks like.
So here is my manifesto. I believe that you as a student are entitled to be provided with tools that will help you demystify and make your way through academia, and that will help you find out what your particular teachers are looking for and what they will reward. Moreover, as someone making a huge financial investment, you are entitled to be given the tools that will help you do this.
On this website, and in the Student-Friendly Guides, I have tried – and continue to try – to provide such tools. Using them should give you confidence, and in the process help you get maximum value from your interaction with academics and especially from your huge financial investment in your course.
You can read more about my sceptical view of UK universities in another page on this website, The strange world of the university. Meanwhile, may I just add that it is not my intention to be combative or to encourage you to be – but, as someone who has been sustained by curiosity, determination and good humour in a career in the academic world, I would encourage you to nurture these traits in yourself and hold steadfastly to them.
Finally, I am all too aware – as you will certainly be – of the drastic way that the coronavirus pandemic has upended the university experience for students. In the absence of face-to-face contacts with academics and your fellow-students, you will have far fewer clues than preceding generations of students as to what is expected from you if you are to do well. So when you get back a piece of work with a mark and comments, it is particularly important to ask yourself what these tell you about what gets good marks. And please, please, keep asking yourself this jackpot question: how do specialists in this subject think?
That knowledge, above all else, is what you need to gain from your university education.