By Laura Mai Echrich
This summer, I graduated from the London School of Economics ‘and Political Science’ with a first class honours and a scholarship. Maybe it was the scholarship that made me stick with the school till the end even though I knew after the first month that it wasn’t what I had expected. I had worked so hard to get in, crossed so many barriers, that it felt impossible for me to admit that what was hiding behind these barriers maybe shouldn’t have been worth the effort. I had been hoping to join a university full of wisdom-seeking, critically debating, challenging and passionate students and teachers. Instead, I became part of a university full of anxious students who feel rather unhappy working harder than is healthy to ramp up their CVs in a competitive environment, justifying it all with “I’ll get a degree from the LSE in the end.”
This is the problem with reputation. It feeds on itself. People who put effort into getting into a reputational university will do everything to keep up the reputation of the school, because it has become part of their own reputation. LSE gets its reputation through research, but it doesn’t deliver the kind of teaching to do it justice.
Everyone who’s been there knows it. The school doesn’t prioritise teaching. It doesn’t prioritise student-wellbeing. It fosters a very unhealthy, at times self-destructive working ethic. It hardly integrates its critical research into its own school-policy. It, like so many other universities in the UK, runs not like a public institution but like a business that markets degrees. LSE teaching doesn’t seem to aim to better society (which was the supposed aim when the school was founded), it is aimed at making money. Education is a product, it has a price tag, and it is treated like that by many of its students. And no one who has paid dozens of thousands of pounds to have the LSE stamp in their CV will go home, turn around and say “It was an average school.” But to me it was. Under-average at times.
I’ve had some very, very bad teachers, some very apathetic classmates and a lot of awkwardly silent seminars. It’s telling that, in theory, you could get a first in most modules without ever saying a single word in class. Not to negate the inspiring teachers and the enthusiastic classmates, but they were in the minority. Yes, LSE is still a hard school. But it teaches you to read wide, not deep – to work fast, not thorough – and it pushes you to be bold, not authentic. Studying is thought of not as reflection, critical debate and intellectual growth, but as a test on how fast you can read articles and write essays with the most citations possible.
Yes, LSE offers you a wealth of resources – but also a lack of guidance. It seems like on the day you arrive you have to know exactly what you want (academically as well as personally) in order to benefit and thrive. Otherwise you are pushed into the treadmill of chasing after your class readings during the day and your essay deadlines at night, pulling all-nighters because everyone else does them, and you try to make up for your lack of social life with societies that lure you with “You can put this in your CV”. You start wondering that you’re doing all this for and end up thinking that your only future lies in investment banking. Eventually you spend more time preparing for job interviews than actually studying. In this way, the LSE produces graduates who, as social scientists, may never have pondered on their own role in society. Graduates, who have learned to look professional in something they are still figuring out for themselves, in a “fake it till you make it” fashion. Graduates, who were deeply unhappy at the LSE, but still carry the name with pride.
It takes courage to graduate from a prestigious elitist university and to envision your future in anything else but the elite track. After having been through the LSE, not only do your classmates and peers but also your family and acquaintances think that the only respectable places for you to work are the Big Four or the UN, and the only appropriate grad schools for you to continue your studies are Oxbridge and Science Po. Because everything else would feel like a downgrade. Even if deep down you suspect that you haven’t actually learned much more than students at other universities, you are scared that it will look like a failure if you go “back” to a no-name university. Sometimes these days, when I sit in a classroom in my Master’s studies, I want to lie about my LSE degree. I don’t want to face any more people who raise their eyebrows when they hear where I have graduated from and begin praising how glorious it must have been to study in London, while the first thoughts that come to my mind about London are sleepless nights in the library and eating Hare Krishna to save money.
I don’t want to face people who assume that my education has somehow been ‘better’ than elsewhere, when really most of what I learned I had to teach myself through readings and Wikipedia. Because the 8 hours a week of contact time that we did have were often spent having meaningless discussions in which everyone was trying to make up what could be written in the readings they pretended to have read. I feel ashamed and upset that as a graduate, I have nothing to say about many basic social science theorists because I was able to get good grades at the LSE by writing essays with bold claims and jotting down authors of crappy, unimportant readings in parententhes next to them.
To me, an LSE education is not a good education by substance, but by surface. No doubt that this surface will be continue to be perpetuated, it’s the reputation-feedback loop that comes with a big name. When my classmates posted graduation pictures back in July, it seemed like all the sorrow we’ve had and all the complaints we have shared about the LSE were swept under a shiny smile between cap and gown. A few captions described LSE as a “rough ride” or a “roller-coaster”, but hardly anyone dared to publicly reflect LSE as an institution that causes mental illness, anxiety, frustration and overall low student satisfaction. Because it means so much to us, to our parents and our future employers to continue pretending that the LSE is a school everyone should be honoured to be in.
I, like many others, will now carry the name LSE around on my CV for the rest of my life, and will often be asked about it with admiration. I have made it my mission to de-glorify the school and I hope that others have the courage to do so as well, because I feel that too few of LSE’s alumni speak truth about it. Too often am I met with awe for having been to the LSE. It makes me feel ashamed, knowing what I know about the school, and remembering how miserable I often was while studying there.
Laura Mai is an EU student who studied her undergraduate degree in a qualitative subject. She is aware, and has seen during her time at the LSE, that her experience may differ from that of overseas, Masters and quantitative students. She is currently pursuing her post-grad degree in a university in Germany.