The hollowed-out degree

By Muhammad Ibrahim

The LSE undergraduate experience has become a hollowed-out version of a university education. The real value of university education, and the signs that represent it, have been confused, leaving us short-changed and in limbo between the two. It’s an education experienced through a Moodle page. Academic fraternity experienced only through endless SU initiatives and “you’ve got this!” hashtags. Genuine discussion reduced to a comment on the course forum page. Far too concerned with looking the part, the university has forgotten that it must be the part.

Every term I read an article in The Beaver invariably about the lack of decency left in LSE or the corporate culture, these articles give words to a deep-rooted problem within the student population we’re all too familiar with. However, I believe the Houghton Street brand of hyper-individualism is not of our own creation, but instead a product of the hollowed-out degree. We feel the university seeks only profit from us, so we seek to extract only what benefits us from the university. The university has replaced the constituting features of an undergraduate degree with the signs that represent them, and we’ve matched this energy, giving them shell societies only to embellish CVs, lecture theatres only filled for careers panels, and common rooms visited only to discuss recruitment tests. 

Universitas magistrorum et scholarium, the community of teachers and scholars. The degree awarded for proficiency, achieved in a place of learning and scholarship: these are the origins of an undergraduate university education. However, as its name becomes a value exchange mechanism, a successful institution falls victim to perverse incentives through the job market. Those that seek the genuine article, the academic experience, are replaced by those that seek the fruits of the signal LSE’s name provides, and commercial incentive on part of the institution drives its management to maximise profit from its brand value. Its name, at first underwritten by the quality of its offerings, becomes fiat. A derivative of the authentic, the sign exchange value of LSE has outstripped its experience.

Like a caricature of the greedy CEO, the university wants to have it both ways and sell the product at full price whilst trimming its academic experience down to the bare bones, but there are no easy fixes. You can’t reduce teaching to the bare bones and expect the same education, you can’t induce fraternity with a hashtag, and you can’t fix mental health issues with a ‘zen bus’ – however well-intentioned its occupants may be. How long will LSE survive on the remnants of reputation alone? The over-emphasis on selling corporate short-courses and summer schools show where the university’s priorities are. Not content with shaving down the student experience, the university sought to short-change its staff too, halted only by union action.

With esteemed academics and former prime ministers struggling to fill lecture theatres, whilst the Business and Investment Group Society’s careers panels spawn queues wrapping around buildings, I can’t help but feel like William Blake’s Little Vagabond, preaching, ‘The Church is cold, But the Alehouse is healthy & pleasant & warm.’ However, this parable does, dear reader, bear a redemptive quality, we, the disenfranchised, would flock to the metaphorical church, if the real was put into reaching distance, if we were allowed to feel its warmth. The research produced by the illustrious and accomplished faculty remains world class, and the student population is filled with impressive and passionate individuals with the capabilities to change the world.  

Yet, the aforementioned illustrious faculty is kept at arm’s length from students, interactions limited to one-hour weekly seminars of around 10 to 20 people. What real and organic discussion can we really achieve in these. The swelling class sizes mean classes are either reduced to mini extensions of the lecture where the teacher will simply talk at you, or, where the teacher against the odds still tries to foster a real discussion, is a painfully silent experience where questions are met with silence and blank faces. Consider the shy fresher, for whom engaging in a discussion becomes an undertaking in performance in front of the 17 other people in the room. Not to mention the effect this has on already overworked staff who have to mark several classes worth of formative essays every term.

Dispersed and distanced from each other, the university’s inadequate accommodation provisions are most certainly owed a large proportion of the blame for the fragmented LSE community. Cornered by London’s overheating rental market, student accommodation is the only way many of us can afford to live in London, however, there simply aren’t enough rooms on offer. Even those willing to undertake the rental battle must begin their search months in advance for any hope of securing a successful bid, eating away at precious exam season hours and no doubt adding to already high tensions. What student accommodation does exist is dotted around the city, often at great distance from campus. 

Why is this a problem you ask? Consider the effort it takes to simply get to campus. One might be willing to make the trek to avoid the passive-aggressive “you’ve missed two consecutive classes” email, but a serious mental cost-benefit analysis ensues when considering whether to make the journey for a society event or to meet a friend. With each trip to campus requiring planning and justification, how likely is it that you’ll have those chance encounters with friends if your time on campus is so limited and you’re dispersed over the city. With the newest Glengall Road accommodation project currently under construction over an hour’s walk from campus, the university shows no willingness to address this.

To achieve real change in the student population and address Houghton Street Individualism, the university must stop with the superficiality and put their money where their mouth is. The “Zen Bus” which pops up on campus during exam season is certainly a novelty which seeks to address symptoms, but addressing the underlying issues would be far more effective. End housing anxiety and lay down the foundations for a socially fertile student body. For me, a law student, the opening of the law common room was a step in the right direction. There was a marked change in the community and interactions after it opened. Even more success from the law school comes in the recently launched Unjust Enrichment module: with two lecturers to 4 students, a friend of mine declared “I have finally gotten value for money” – although I imagine the small class size is more a reflection of the niche area of law, than any conscious attempt by the university.

Perhaps this state of affairs is the product of a consumer society relying on signs and symbols. We must pay a premium for the privilege of holding the sign exchange value we’ve drawn from the prepared reality of academia we purchase and satisfy ourselves as mark-scheme gaming Moodle students. We must distinguish the simulation from reality and demand more from our tuition fees. And to LSE management, next time you have the choice, instead of plastering faces on the side of the Old Building in another propagandaesque marketing campaign, why not spend the money paying staff fairly, reducing class sizes or investing in affordable and vicinal accommodation. We’ve had enough of platitudinous initiatives, hubs, schemes, strategies or whatever else they’ve call it this time. Without reform, the LSE undergraduate programme risks become nothing more than a test centre with an expensive library. 

Put that in your TQARO survey.

Illustration by Fay Qian

Muhammad explores the hollowing-out of the LSE experience by exploring how our degrees have become symbols rather than educations.


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