Thursday 21 May 2020

Day 66 of self-isolation - Cambridge online

 Cambridge online

At this time of year, about half a century ago, I was looking forward to taking my A levels. Yes, really looking forward, because I had an offer from Cambridge that only needed two grade E passes. And I was about to take four A levels in one subject (maths) and wound up with three As and a B (let down by my physics practical).

And I was really looking forward to three years away from home at the sacred place of learning, where I would scale the dizzy heights of quantum theory, general relativity, electromagnetism, aerodynamics, algebra, analysis, number theory, numerical methods and maybe even computing using the university Atlas!

This was all going to be free. No, better than free; the government was going to give me £370 per year for digs, food, books and beer. And with the digs costing only £60 for the year, and with me not being a heavy drinker, the outlook was rosy.

But today? Students are having to find £9250 per year for tuition fees, and then digs, food, books and beer. And therefore many have to take out a student loan; I would have needed £9000 maintenance. So  would have left university owing  some £50,000. And even though this is only repaid after your income reaches a certain level, it would have weighed heavily on me.

And so I strongly oppose the imposition of university fees. I feel as if I climbed up the ladder provided for me, and then the ladder was burned.

When I got to university, my first purchase was a £5 bicycle, which I learned to ride on my way back from the cattle market to my digs. And from there on, my life was one mad social whirl for the next three years. Including the memorable moment when I fell into the Cam from a punt fully clothed, and thereby qualified to join the Dampers club.

But today? Cambridge has just announced that all courses will be online for the academic year 2020/21. So students don't need to leave their parents' home and get into the late teenage transition from child to adult, and instead of a bicycle, they'll need a computer. Instead of mingling with the opposite sex, they'll use Facebook (or whatever the kids use these days).

I didn't learn much from lectures. The point of a lecture was to transfer words from the lecturers script to the students  notebook, without going through the minds of either. But the weekly tutorials (we called them "supervisions") were where you and maybe one other student, got the full attention of a post graduate, who was able to explain things to us, and give us exercises to do, and recommend books to buy.

My "best" lecturer was Professor Dirac, a Nobel prizewinner. We couldn't hear what he was mumbling, and we couldn't read his handwriting on the blackboard. But we were aware that we were in the presence of a legend, and that had to be enough.  I got most of my learning from the Schaum Outline series of books, which I would still recommend.

Next year will be a totally different experience.

You can't punt slowly up the Cam to Grantchester, where there still is honey for tea. No winter gathering round the gas fire to toast crumpets and soak them in butter. No meetings of the Puzzles and Games Ring, where we played Eleusis, and where Life was first announced by John Conway. No weekly bridge tournament, no Science Fiction Book Club. No practical jokes played on other students.  No having to wear your gown when out after dusk, and if you didn't, the bulldogs would get you. No missing the midnight curfew deadline, and having to climb out of Trinity with your bicycle, because you needed it to get back to your digs. No leaving your lecture at the top of the hour, and joining the torrent of bicycles to the next appointment. No Rag week. And no early experiences with the opposite sex.

Online is going to be nothing like the real thing. And yet they will still extract £9250 per year from the students.

I can't blame Cambridge for taking this measure. I just think that it's terribly, terribly sad.


  1. My two daughters cost $360k for their college, room and board. £50k sounds pretty nice to me.

  2. Wow. The US college system is even worse than ours!

  3. The Singapore education system is not too bad, by comparison.

  4. My son just cleared his A levels, through a school in Mumbai. I think it cost us 14000 pounds, for both years put together. Mind you he was staying at home and eating two meals at home -- only lunch on schooldays was provided by the school

  5. Wow.

    I got my A levels, it didn't cost me a penny. I believe that education should be funded by the state, out of taxation. That's how it used to be; that's how it could be in future.