How have students changed (1984-2012)? And what is a university for?
Yesterday evening I had a party for all the 20 or so Classics students at Newnham, undergraduates and grads (and a few fellows). We had some nice glasses of prosecco and orange juice, and a good chat... and I came home after a couple of hours to think about how the class of 2012 was different from the class of 1984. (Don't worry ladies, I'm not going to embarrass you..!)
It's easy to dump on the students of 2012 versus those of "our" generation (whenever than might be). And it's true that there are differences and downsides. Many of them, for example, have had a lot less time than we had to work out about how you learn on your own. People my age remember having loads of free periods to work in the library when we were 16 or so. Whether that's better than doing PSE, and whether we really did use the time to read rather than have a quick fag behind the bike shed, I am not sure -- but there was the beginning of a sense of independent learning and time management in our apparently free time, and it was a good prepraration for uni.
But it wasn't that which struck me as we caroused (modestly) last night. I came home thinking how much had changed in 25 years (despite what you hear about how Oxbridge is stuck in the past). For a start, we now have in college a much more mixed undergraduate and graduate community. At the party we had 4 grads there -- doing Masters courses and PhD's. 30 years ago, when I did my PhD, we grads were pretty much invisible, perhaps one every other year. The community was really an undergrad affair.
Then they were more international, and that was not only the grads -- though they were particularly so. We have a new first year undergraduate from Puerto Rico (doing the four year course), not to mention a Chinese and Scandavian grad (and a Brazilian who couldn't make it), and we have British students with an ethnic background in India and the Far East. We also have mature students and " kids" (sorry kids) who have never done classical languages before, but are learning them in Cambridge from scratch (hard work but worth it), and other doing Latin and French.
And if you were to ask about school types, then there are students from maintained and independent schools -- and quite rightly, they are prepared to discuss exactly the issues we would expect them to, in and around the politics of that.
I have to say I feel proud and privileged to have something to do with these students over the next few years. And if if you asked what I hoped to do with them, I would say (for a start) that I would want them to learn to think harder about things they had never thought hard about before (and that wouldn't be a bad start).
(And, as for the rest on what universities are for (at the risk of self advertising), come along to our debate on exactly that at Cheltenham Lit Festival on Sunday.)