People go to university for all kinds of reasons. Intellectual pursuit, freedom away from parents, to achieve new things, or just to get away with living on nothing but vodka and pot noodles. University is time of change, and it gives you a chance to discover more about yourself and the world, and to decide who you want to be. It’s a crossroads, where futures suddenly open up ahead of you that maybe you couldn’t see before. It can be incredible, or it can be hard and scary and lonely.
What it shouldn’t be is simply a qualification factory. But that’s the way it looks to be heading.
In Europe, universities didn’t even use written exams until the 18th century. There’s nothing wrong with that; of course institutions change over the centuries. But it shows that there must be other elements to higher learning. Exams are only one part of your degree; for a lot of subjects they’re not even always the most important method of assessment, which itself shouldn’t be the sole focus. Despite this, there seems to be a lot of emphasis, if not on exams themselves, on the exam mindset.
Because that’s what the student is now: a customer
In the exam mindset, learning is only a means to an end. This means all learning has to be ‘useful’ — only things that will be tested on, only knowledge and ideas that will score highly. Repetition and memorising takes precedence over experimenting and exploring.
Exams are inherently limiting in structure. It’s hard to measure anything about a person by giving them a few, specific questions and a tight time limit. And even if you could, should university be purely about measuring people? If it takes away from actual learning, then definitely not.
The problem is the fact that the exams, and the certificate they lead to, is now the only goal — the singular ‘point’ of going to university is the qualification. Universities function like corporations in our economy , as they have to compete for customers using league tables. Because that’s what the student is now: a customer. You, the student, choose to make a purchase. You pay the astronomical tuition fees in order to buy a product — your degree or qualification.
Instead of education being a right, it’s a product to be bought
In this depressing system, where everything, even uni, must take place in the context of profit and consumption, all that matters are exams, because they grant you the product that you’ve paid so much to access.
In this way, the focus on exams is part of a bigger, scarier, change. Putting universities into a framework limited on all sides by the logic of consumer capitalism acts as an excuse to keep corporatising universities, and to charge students more and more. Instead of education being a right, it’s a product to be bought. It’s not even worth all that much: it’s still difficult for graduates to get good jobs in their field and to pay off their loans. The price is high simply because no-one is offering the same for less. What else can you do?
It’s a lose-lose-lose: the career-focused, the party animals, and those who genuinely love learning and academia are all basically just bankrupting themselves for an institution that’s becoming no more than a three year queue at a certificate shop. No wonder universities are experiencing a mental health crisis, with a record number of students dropping out last year. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and revise.