Forget the Footnotes

Op-ed piece for THES

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The Times Higher Education Supplement wanted me to write a short op-ed piece about why I think the LSE is no better than the London Met. They are paying 200 pounds and of course I couldn’t resist such generous blood money. Since I’m actually pretty fed up writing about the LSE, and I suspect you might be fed up reading about it, I’ll put it in a “read the rest” link below.

August 15, update: the piece will appear in THES on August 18. Coming Thursday. They shortened it a bit but not very much.


What a terrible faux-pas! How could I have said such a thing? That “the LSE is no better than the London Met.” And how could I have said it at an Open Day speech where the whole point is to recruit students? No surprise everyone ganged up on me — the convenor of my department, all the big professors and the professor wanna-bes, assorted administrators and the LSE director himself. “The LSE no better than the London Met! Is the chap per chance mad?”

During their first year at an elite institution like the LSE, students spend much of their time asking themselves what all the fuss is about. Obviously they know about the reputation of the School, the famous professors, the important books, the talking-LSE-heads that constantly pop up on the telly. But, the students ask, if the LSE is so great, why are many of the lecturers so boring, many exercises so useless, and why do the academics never seem to have any time for us?

The truth is of course that the in-class experience of an LSE student differs very little from the in-class experience of a student at any other university, including the London Met. Think about it. The kinds of courses taught at universities are pretty much the same wherever you go. All universities have the same kinds of reading lists with the same kinds of books, the same exercises and exam questions. The differences that are supposed to be so great simply aren’t there. Those who claim otherwise are either deluding themselves or are brazenly lying.

The same is true of the lecturers, and again this is not surprising. Often after all we got our PhDs from same universities and it was nothing but luck that landed us a job at the LSE rather than elsewhere. And even if LSE academics on average may be better researchers, they are not necessarily better teachers ? and that, in the end, is what matters to students. In fact, ceteris paribus, the more famous the professor, the less time he or she is likely to spend with students. The conclusion is clear: if you want close interaction with faculty, go to a teaching university!

The average undergrad figures all this out in about three months. Yet very few of them actually transfer elsewhere. Why? This too is so blindingly obvious you’ll have to be the convenor of a department not to see it. The students come because of the other students. Above all they come to in order to get hooked up, because of the network a particular university provides.

This is of course where LSE really stands out. Its student body makes it vastly different from other universities, not just in Britain but in the world. The School has consistently been able to recruit some of the smartest, most interesting, intelligent, rich, successful and all-round attractive people on the planet. These are the movers and shakers of the future, the cosmocrats. As an LSE student you are a part of this extraordinary collection of people. This is the pool from which you draw your friends, mates, partners and lovers. Compare the LSE and the London Met by this standard and you’d be a fool to pick the latter.

But it’s also a matter of being certified. Think of this as a question of how employers pick new staff. Again the actual content of an education is of little importance. What you need to know as an employee in a particular company is to a large extent practical, hands-on, stuff which universities can�t teach you. Besides many employers don�t trust universities. Ergo, much of what students learn is pretty useless for their working life.

Why then are employers interested in university trained people? It�s simple. What they want are bright and very competitive young men and women who are prepared to subject themselves to hours and hours of mindless exercises under stressful conditions. How can they find these people? In the universities of course. Picking the best students from the best universities, these are the kinds of people they get.

As students and as teachers we may rebel against this logic but there is nothing we can do about it. Resigning themselves to the laws of the labor market, the LSE becomes a potential student’s obvious choice. An LSE diploma is not a proof of what they have learned as much as of their ability to come out on top in a neck-to-neck competition with their peers. A London Met diploma just doesn’t do the same job.

Poor old self-important professors, they really think the students show up in order to listen to their ramblings. Sancta simplicitas!

Ever since that fateful Open Day speech, I have been treated as a whistleblower, as someone who revealed secrets about the inner workings of one of Britain’s most hallowed institutions. How silly. I’m blowing no whistles. I’m much more like a boy innocently commenting on an emperor’s choice of clothing, thereby revealing, shall we say, a certain pretentiousness.

Erik Ringmar is professor at the Institute for Social and Cultural Studies at the National Chiao Tung Univesity, Hsinchu, Taiwan. He taught in the Government Department at the LSE from 1995 to 2006. His new book I’m Blogging This: Free Speech and Censorship in a Digital Age will be out next year.


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