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The Future of Education?

From today's WSJ, "Reading Law at Oxford":

Rather than being more formal than the lecture-driven, American undergraduate life to which I was accustomed, the British environment is more relaxed. In the intimate tutorials that are the main means of undergraduate instruction, an air of easy informality prevails. Rather than get hung up on rules and procedure, tutors focus on creating a stimulating intellectual exchange.

That's why I cringed when it came out this week that Oxford's colleges are drafting a new legal agreement, which they plan to compel all new undergraduates to sign beginning this fall. The lawyers fear the lack of a written contract leaves colleges too vulnerable to being sued by disgruntled students. Modest student fees are soon to be phased in on top of what has until recently been an entirely free public education (at least for British citizens). The fear is that an unhappy student might take his college to court for providing bad value for money, as if it were a construction contractor.

Students, just in case they haven't yet made up their minds, are asked to formally confirm that they "undertake to pursue satisfactorily" the course of study for which they are arriving. The document helpfully clarifies that "studies include the reading of materials." The college, for its part, promises to "make such teaching provision for undergraduates as it reasonably decides is necessary." The colleges also promise to provide library and computer access (except in "adverse circumstances") and meals ("from time to time").

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Oxford's colleges do have reason to worry. In 2002, a student sued Wolverhampton University, claiming he was receiving substandard instruction, and adducing assignments with grammatical errors as court evidence! But the colleges, in trying to shield themselves with more legalese, have drawn the wrong lesson. The plaintiff in the Wolverhampton suit was a law student, and viewing his studies in legal terms was the start of all the trouble.

Once it is allowed in at all, the legal mindset increases in scope until it encompasses nearly everything. This process has already begun, with the president of Oxford's student council complaining that the contract needs to be made longer and more specific. She fears students are "at risk" if there are no contractual guarantees that they will be consulted on major decisions....

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