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Which university? Gareth asks questions


"My chemistry teacher wants me to try for Cambridge, Chris," Gareth said. "But I'm not sure that I'd fit in there, with all those public school boys."

"Don't be silly! Public school! Comprehensive school! What difference does it make? Anyway, you can't get a place at Oxford or Cambridge these days just because your father is rich or famous. Lei's talk to Henry Robinson. He's at Cambridge, and he didn't go to a public school."

The Robinsons were Christine's neighbours. Henry's younger sisters were both at university too. Pat, aged 20, was at a new university in an ancient cathedral town. Liz, aged 19, was at a university in a northern industrial city. Pat's university was planned in the American campus style, with halls of residence grouped around the main buildings. They had a magnificent library, comfortable common rooms and bars. The halls of residence were mixed.

"They treat us like, adults," Pat said.

Liz does not envy her sister. She and two other girls have rented cheaply a house in a poor district of the city about ten minutes' bus ride from the university. The house is awful," Liz said. "Door handles keep falling off and the cooker doesn't work properly. Once, our lights failed. Luckily, one of our neighbours is an electrician. He spent hours repairing our wiring. We have long talks with him over cups of tea, and we've learnt a lot about how people in the poorer pans of big cities live. Our street is almost a slum, but my people are so kind and friendly. The men are bitter about being unemployed, of course..."

"Our town is a lot smaller than Liz's," Par said. "It hasn't got any slums, but there are a lot of lonely old people. I spend an hour or two each week with an old lady of eighty. We just sit and talk."

"Do many students do social work of that sort?" Christine asked.

"Quite a lot."

"Why did you choose Cambridge, Henry?" Gareth asked.

 "Because it's the best university for science subjects. Besides, it still helps to have an Oxford or Cambridge degree."

"They still have snob value when it comes  getting a job," said Pat.

"Not nearly as much as they used to, and only in certain jobs," Henry said. "Anyway, I chose Cambridge because of its special atmosphere. I've got rooms in one of the old colleges overlooking the river. It's the college, not the university, that is the centre of our lives. It's like living in a community within a community."

There is great rivalry between colleges, especially in sport.

Study and degrees

Arts and social sciences are more popular than science subjects but the government is trying to reverse this situation. The government has provided extra money for more science teachers and more student places on science, technology and vocational courses. They believe that university education should prepare students more directly for jobs.

Although Britain has a small number of students at universities compared with many countries, the number of graduates is large. This is because students are carefully selected and only 10 per cent leave without getting a degree. So Henry is not worried about failing his examination, but he is very anxious to get a good degree. He is aiming for a first class honours degree in Chemistry because he wants a scientific job in industry.

In Henry's case everything will depend on how well he does in his "finals" at the end of his third (last) year. He finds the uncertainty a great strain. Pat, on the other hand, will not have so great a strain, for although she too will have to take a final exam, she will also get marks for the work she does during her three years at university. These marks will count towards her degree, and will play an important part in deciding whether she gets first, second or third class honours. Many universities have changed and modernised their examination systems.

Pat chose her university because of its progressive ideas on education and its broader and more varied courses. Many of the new universities are experimenting with new subjects.

"I'm doing comparative literature," she said. At the moment I'm comparing English, French and Russian novels. We write papers on our work, and then about ten of us meet with our professor and read them and discuss them his "seminar" system is common in the new universities.

"It works, because we get on well with the professor and lecturers," said Pat. "Some of them aren't much older than us and they don't mind at all if we disagree with them."

"You're lucky," Liz said. "We never open our mouths. We're a dull lot, but then so are most of our lecturers. Besides, the course hasn't changed for the last twenty-five years. I think students ought to have a hand in the planning and reorganisation of their programmes of study."

"Wouldn't work!" said Henry. "Far too many different opinions!"

Henry, like Liz, is critical of some of his professors and lecturers who are more interested in their research projects than in helping him in his studies. But he attends lectures given by some of the most distinguished scholars in the country.

The most important person in Henry's academic life is his supervisor. Every week, alone or with one other student, he has tutorials with his supervisor, who is an approachable man and is always ready to discuss with him anything connected with his work.

"Don't most other universities have some sort of tutorial system these days?" asked Gareth.

"Probably," Henry answered. "But Oxford and Cambridge aren't the best place for every subject."

"No, they're not," Pat went on. "I'm sure most employers are more interested in the kind of degree you have than where it comes from."

Henry, Pat and Liz all have a high opinion of the teaching and of the friendly relations between students and staff at their universities. The student -lecturer ratio at British universities is among the best in the world - 8:1.

In 1968 114,289 students were admitted to universities. In 1978 more than twice as many were admitted. By the 1980s universities were no longer expanding so rapidly, but accommodation remains a problem.

Most universities have hostels or rooms, but not enough for everyone. So all the rest have to find somewhere to live in the neighbouring town. Very few students choose universities near their home.


Who pays?


Mr Robinson, who is a manager in a small department store, cannot afford to pay for his children's education at university. Since they were all able to get the necessary «A» level at school, each of them receives a grant from the local council. This covers most of their fees and living expenses during term rime. Mr Robinson has to pay the rest. If Charles Blakeney's daughter went to university, however, she would receive no grant. The size of the LEA grant depends on the size of the parents' income.

At present these grants do not have to be repaid to the government but the Conservative Party have discussed the possibility of replacing grants with loans.

Text D

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