The other day I happened to be on the campus of an old and prestigious university (that shall remain nameless other than to say it was not my own university) when I thought I’d treat myself to a coffee in the main campus coffee bar/ restaurant. Nothing unusual so far but having made my way past all the signs saying that I would be summarily executed if dared to take any crockery outside, I eventually found myself a table only to find a sign on it saying that I was not to use the table for studying between 12 and 2. Stifling the instinct to laugh out loud I was privately relieved that it was outside the proscribed period and I could therefore study to my hearts content. I immediately used my smart phone to browse for the sports results which, presumably, I wouldn’t have been able to do between 12 and 2.
Having retrieved my data I reflected on the absurdity of this ‘rule’ and wondered whether reflection counted as study in which case I wouldn’t have been able to do that either. This led me to the conclusion that the only way that the tables could be used at lunchtime were if you sat there in a catatonic state and were fed intravenously. I guessed this didn’t really happen so I wondered if the cafe employed staff to go round and check that patrons weren’t studying. Maybe they gave them cue cards with things that they could and couldn’t talk about and web sites that they could and couldn’t go to. The Glee web site is fine but don’t dare go to the TED web site.
Finishing my frankly average and overpriced coffee I left the bastion ignorance and wandered through the otherwise beautiful campus and wondered what had happened to Australian universities that they tolerate this behaviour. I allowed it to fit my ongoing thesis that Australian universities are the most corporate in the world and take their lead directly from the rampant commercialisation that happens in many other walks of Australian life. From commercial television to other so called services. I was put in mind of a recent experience at Melbourne Airport which, as far as I’m concerned, is an entity designed purely for the gouging of the travelling public at every opportunity that just happens to have planes.
I strongly suspect that the behaviour of this cafe operator would not be condoned in any other country, not even (and maybe especially not) the home of capitalism, the United States. I heard a presentation recently (I have forgotten the exact details of who and where) in which the speaker described his delight at seeing students at a US university using the campus cafes and sitting in groups working with laptops and wireless networks together in highly relaxed, studious and collegial way. Sadly Australian universities seem to be trying their best to deter such behaviour.
I tweeted recently on hearing that a certain university was outsourcing its online learning to a major publisher that now all the university concerned had to do was outsource its research activity and then it could just concentrate on marketing and merchandising. Perhaps it was a little harsh but I suspect there are some that would be quite happy to go down that route. This, in turn reminded me of the Monty Python sketch from the Meaning of Life where the hospital administrator receives rapt applause for the way that he has managed various financial manoeuvres and been able to buy a machine that goes ‘ping’ without knowing, or caring, what it does. All that matters is that it is the most expensive machine in the hospital.
The sad thing is that, despite being a strong proponent of flexible learning being delivered digitally and a time and place of the students choosing, I also believe that there remains a need for some campus based learning. The amount and nature of this will vary according to the topic of study. Having said that, as friend of mine observed, if you are going to make me come to the campus for a learning experience then you’d better make sure it’s a damn good experience and, preferably one where I can study and eat between 12 and 2.