A university professor has suggested that today’s graduates leave university without the ability to think.

The claim appeared in an article by Tim Birkhead, professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Sheffield, in this week’s Times Higher Education.

Graduate Fog thinks that university professors should think twice about insulting their former students – especially when it’s you lot who pay their salaries with your tuition fees.

In the piece, Birkhead likened graduates to, er, baby squid:

“When conditions are good, reasonable numbers may survive, but with a sudden downturn in environmental conditions only those offspring with the right combination of traits will make it.”

…before appearing to insult the modern graduate by claiming s/he is not unlike a German boy who grew up in isolation in a darkened cell in the 1800s:

“On graduating, the average student is rather like Kaspar Hauser on his first day on the streets, still needing to be taught how to think.”

Still, there was some consolation.

Birkhead went on to offer his own insightful tips for graduate career success in a recession:

“What do you need to survive and gain meaningful employment? The answer is: something different. In a world where graduates are both numerous and depressingly similar (ie with an upper second class degree), you need something to make you stand out.”

Brilliant! Something to make you ‘stand out’! Why didn’t WE think of that?

(What did he have in mind? Let us guess… An unpaid internship, perhaps?).

Although Birkhead later questioned whether universities’ teaching methods needed updating (er, yes?), he initially seemed happy to blame everybody but the universities for this apparent failure to equip you with the razor-sharp thinking and ability to ‘stand out’ that you need in order to land a graduate job in 2010.

He wrote:

“Despite their best efforts, universities have struggled to help students stand out, constrained, first by sheer weight of numbers, second by a pre-university experience that does little more than train pupils to pass examinations, and third, by a culture where no student fails, and in which every university, department, academic and school teacher is micro-assessed to make sure no-one fails.”

Here, the author’s ‘poor me’ language started to wind me up.

(“Despite their best efforts”, “struggled to help”, “constrained”…)

I’m not a fan of victim culture, but I do think that if anyone is the ‘victim’ here, it’s you lot – the graduates, his customers – who are leaving university £23k in debt and without any sign of the promised ‘leg-up’ in the job market you were led to believe that a degree would buy you.

(New stats out today show that 55% of undergraduates are worried about failing to find work after graduation. That’s hardly a vote of confidence for their universities, is it?)

I’m also irritated by Birkhead’s readiness to blame everybody around him, for making it so difficult for him and his colleagues to provide the sort of quality, rigorous training he says they used to.

First it’s your fault, for turning up in such big numbers.

Next, it’s your school’s fault, for teaching you to pass exams.

And finally, it’s the creation of a general ‘culture’ where excellence has been replaced by mediocrity. (Er, whose fault is that then?)

I’m not a university lecturer. Perhaps Birkbeck has a point – perhaps he doesn’t.

But if these universities are still quite happy to take your money, I think their staff should stop moaning about how tough their job is – and stop making excuses for their failure to equip you with the skills employers really want.

(If this is even true. Personally, I feel businesses should be taking their share of the responsibility for training you – rather than expecting you to arrive at their door, pre-trained for them, either by your uni or by yourself, through doing unpaid internships.).

Asking us all to feel sympathy for the academics’ plight is, in my opinion, a bit rich.

If the skills, ‘critical thinking’ or whatever he wants to call them that graduates leave university with do not match those that employers want, it is at least partly the responsibility of universities to wise up and modernise their approach.

And they need to do this fast.

Chop-chop people, it’s 2010.

(Historically, this tribe has not moved fast. It’s taken universities more than ten years to realise that the internet is kind of a big deal. Depressingly, a new survey by Transversal showed nearly half (47%) of students rated their university’s website as ‘poor’ or ‘average’.)

In my opinion, Birkhead whining that things aren’t the way they once were and that his job has got a bit hard in the current circumstances is unacceptable when his employer (and other universities like Sheffield) are continuing to take students’ money, quite happily.

Frankly, I think it’s shocking that a university professor would admit that their teaching isn’t up to scratch.

Nothing is the way that it was ten years ago. In anybody’s industry.

Everybody’s job has got harder, squeezed by budget cuts and turned upside-down by the impact of the internet, digital technology, privatisation, globalisation, a recession, a change of government…

Roll with the punches, folks – everybody else is.

Don’t play the victim.

And don’t kick today’s graduates while they’re down – and when their tuition fees have just been used to pay your salary.

Let’s have a bit of respect for the class of 2010, please.

*Was Birkhead out of line?
Or did I just get out of the wrong side of bed this morning? Read the original article yourself here.

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