When I heard back from the LSE, I spent the day researching the school, looking at international rankings for my field, acceptance rates, and delving into the depths of YouTube to find videos that might provide an insight into life at LSE. While I had my hesitations, the LSE’s academic reputation (plus the added bonus of going away for university—to London, of all places), made my acceptance seem like too good of an opportunity to pass up. However, I have realized that the LSE’s pedagogy and structural aspects of the UK’s education system are misaligned with what I want to get out of my undergraduate degree. Therefore, I have withdrawn from the LSE and will be attending McGill University in January.
Structural aspects of the LSE’s undergraduate programmes perpetuate a focus on vocational learning. My shortage of contact hours makes it difficult for lecturers or class teachers to prompt critical engagement with the subject. With an hour per week per course of lectures in essay-writing subjects, lecturers can only give an introduction to the topic. With an hour per week per course of class to discuss the lecture and approximately three essential readings, class teachers often do not have time go over the readings and engage with the subject matter meaningfully. The result is second- and third-years advising first years to decide what topics they want to cover in their essays and on the exam at the start of the year and to strategically focus on those. Students are therefore not required to engage with the course in full; we can, and do, get away with only engaging with about a third of the material we are being taught.
Similarly, predominantly exam-based courses make it possible for students to still do well, even if school is a secondary consideration for most of the year. Students are barely challenged to engage with their subjects year-round, and this becomes apparent seeing the quietness in class discussions. While the efficiency promoted by low contact hours and exam-based courses might help students prepare for the “real world,” it does not encourage the exploration of subjects comprehensively enough.
Rigid programmes also discourage students from exploring a breadth of subjects. As a social science institution, the LSE has the opportunity to create interdisciplinary thinkers. By having heavily preset programme structures and by limiting students to four modules per year, students cannot only begin to explore other fields. LSE100 attempts to create more of an interdisciplinary perspective of education at the LSE; I have no experience with the course, but I have been told that it fails to do so. While specialization seemed like a benefit of the UK education system when I was deciding, I do not feel like I know enough about different disciplines to immerse myself in a particular academic silo. Surely undergraduate degrees should be an opportunity to freely explore knowledge, which I did not feel the LSE does not allowed for.
When raising my concerns, I was told that the LSE aims to foster self-motivation. But what is the point of attending an educational institution I felt did not push back against the boundaries of my intellectual capabilities?
I was told that these problems are just a part of first year. But, to me, first year is also when universities should be bringing everyone up to a certain baseline, upon which later years can build. If the baseline is not all that challenging and by and large demotivating, later years will be similar. What struck me most was the response I got from a number of second- and third- years, many of whom are some of the most interesting people I have met at LSE; many of them told me that I’m making a decision they wish they had made. Things did not, in fact, change, and some expressed that the LSE felt more of a brand than a university throughout. To hear such a response confirmed my sense that these problems are a part of the institutional structures and not just my own brief subjective experience.
I was told that many of the structural factors I take issue with are not limited to LSE, but are part of the UK’s postsecondary system. However, the LSE has enough of a global reputation to do things differently if it saw fit. Similar structures at other universities do not necessarily mean that those structures benefit students.
Disproportionately low student satisfaction rates have pushed the LSE to respond to the needs of its students. Changes, it seems, are coming, but they will not come quickly enough for them to affect my educational experience. Speaking from brief experience with my department’s Student Staff Liaison Committee, academics and administrators should better accept students’ suggestions, even if they go against ‘the way things are’. Without more meaningfully considering the input of students, nothing will change; students will continue to be equally dissatisfied.
Part of the problem is out of LSE’s hands; part of the problem is a product of the institution’s attractive name in the job market. Perhaps this is too harsh a judgement, but it seems to me that many students themselves are predominantly interested in getting a degree from a university with a good name to get a good job and then be “successful.” The perpetuation of the LSE’s financially-accruing brand name perhaps pre-selects students who are going to university for that purpose, and the current structure of LSE seems not to discourage such an approach to academia.
This didactic view of education and the commodification of education leads to a depoliticised campus. When some students are even calculating how much they have to pay per contact hour, they are perhaps less likely to want to engage in “useless” extracurriculars (i.e. the arts) or “waste time” with political activities. University campuses, filled with curious youths, should surely be hotbeds for art, culture, and political activism. The LSE is not known for these.
I am, in part, able to make this decision because I can attend an institution that seems to better suit my perspective on academia. The fact that I am going home means that, while I have to move again, it won’t be difficult to readjust. For other UK students, LSE is one of the best schools they can attend. I feel fortunate to be able to go somewhere that I think will suit me better, but students I spoke to do not have this option, opting to stay and spend three years feeling more unengaged and unmotivated than they’d hoped for. I hope changes that make LSE a better institution take place, but I will not be sticking around to wait and see.