Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"I'm old enough to be your mother!"

This autumn has a particular significance for me. Last night I was waiting at the bus stop to come home from work when it occurred to me that many of this year’s first years were born in the year I went away to university. They really are old enough to be my children now. I felt old – and a bit mystified by the whole passing of time thing.

The students waiting at the stop with me had matching t-shirts – some kind of freshers event, even though we are four weeks into term. The young women (yes, I did just delete ‘girls’!) had slashed a v down the front of their shirts and were wearing the tiniest shorts. All were roaring drunk – at 8pm. I worried if they would all look after each other later on, about how cold they’d be, whether they were likely to throw up on the bus. I felt a mixture of tired (end of a long day!), irritated at their drunken silliness and maternal! Bizarre!

When I went to university (Leeds) there were no mobile phones, no emails, no messaging. It really does feel like another century! My mum used to give me a £10 phone card to take with me, which lasted me well into the term. Most of my communication with family and friends back home, or round the country, was by letter. I couldn’t afford to phone people all the time! I wrote reams of letters. I waited with anticipation for the post. In my first year, in halls, post was spread out on a table in the central room and you had to go and look to see if there was anything for you. Today’s students are never out of touch. The first thing they do, on arrival on the campus, is get online to get in touch again.

When I left university I owed not one penny to anyone. I got a grant of nearly £2000 a year, my fees were all paid, and I worked and saved in the vacations – but never in the term. I lived on a budget of around £30 per week for food, clothes and going out – if I remember rightly. I got clothes at the big Oxfam surplus store in the Chapeltown Road. I bought all my food at Morrison’s (which was the cheapest supermarket) or in the covered market in the city.

I guess I was always careful with money but so were most of my friends. I felt that it was part of the test of being grown up – could I manage my money? I had enough to get by and have quite a lot of fun. No-one was offering us loans, though. If you wanted an overdraft you had to go and make an appointment at the bank! These days the students know that they will leave with a big debt – a scary, massive debt. I think that that has shifted student culture firmly into one of spend now and worry later. If you’re going to owe tens of thousands then why not just add a few more thousand and really enjoy yourself?

I don’t know if our kids will ever want to go to university. I’m not at all sure that I would advise them to. I guess that’s a bit of a cheek – the students turning up here pays my wages – but I just can’t imagine the horror of being so far in debt when you leave university. When I left, clutching a 2:1 in sociology, I was hardly employable! I went back to the bookshop where I’d worked part-time since I was at school.

That was ok. But if I’d had a huge overdraft hanging round my neck I’d never have coped. And I guess I’d still be paying off student loans now… And, for what?

Personally, and this is a totally personal viewpoint, I can remember very, very little of what I learned when studying for my first degree. When I’m helping students at work I do remember some names – Habermas, Adorno – that Giddens book like a doorstop! I remember alienation, anomie, ideology. But I couldn’t tell you much about any of it – not really. I read a lot of feminists who I have forgotten. There was Ann Oakley, but I can only remember her because of Annie Oakley! I liked to imagine her as a woman with a six-shooter. I learned some stuff about South Korea – a bit of which has stuck – because it was taught by someone who really cared about it. But most of it is gone.

Of course, there was three years of life in there too. I remember quite a lot of that. I had some great friends. But, would I have done it if it meant such a huge debt? I don’t know. It seems like quite an extreme and expensive way to leave home – which is essentially what it was for me. For some of the students these days it seems to be not unlike three years at Butlins. They go to endless theme nights at the clubs. They get drunk several nights week. I’m not being judgemental – it’s a choice, I suppose. I also don’t want to over generalise. Some of the students work damn hard. Some I see pretty much every day – they read and write and engage with the whole business. But all of them leave owing so much money – no matter what they get out of it.

From now on I know that it will be a steady progression for me, until the new students are younger than my kids, until they are the age of my grandchildren, should I have any. I don’t imagine leaving. Of course, my job is somewhat fluid these days. The building itself will disappear eventually, no doubt. Nothing stays the same, expect perhaps the fact that the first years will still have that damn Giddens book on their reading list – albeit an e-book! And if they decide they don’t need librarians any more then I’ll work in the canteen – they’ll always need coffee.

If my kids decide to go to university and run up that debt then they will, I suppose. If they don’t I won’t be heartbroken. My parents were the first in their families to go to university. They were very proud of that achievement – and rightly so, I think. For me it was more like sitting on a conveyor belt that plopped me off into university, where I didn’t really know what I was doing. If I turned up for my lectures it was only because that gave me more time to moon round that older woman I was never brave enough to make the moves on…I guess that the fact that our kids aren’t on the conveyor belt means that they will have to make a clear choice to pursue the route to university– and work out how to get themselves there. If they don’t go then no doubt they’ll be busy doing something else.


'EF' said...

I miss letters. I really do. Noone will write them any more..okay, not no-one, but it's just easier to write emails I spose.

Thankyou for this post, I'd been feeling put out today going over my old regret about never 'making it' to university, which I was sort of expected to. My Grandparents worked their fingers to the bone so my parents were the first in their family to make it to uni and it was a kind of relay race they started and their grandchildren failed.

But as a 'coming of age' experience I spose uni is still the only thing kids have. But for a long time it's been about sex, drugs and rock and roll...did this come in with the debts? I would have thought that running a debt up at such a tender age is a recipe for heartbreak...what are we paying our taxes for again?...can someone explain to me why kids have to go into debt to get a higher education these days? What is the reasoning behind that? And do kids from 'poorer' backgrounds get grants still?

Gill said...

Yes I certainly haven't encouraged ours to go to uni and am quite alarmed at the prospect of Tom going. He has another open day to attend tomorrow. If I had my way none of them would accrue any debt whatsoever - not even mortgage! But will they listen to their old mother...?!

Allie said...


Ef, you said:
"But for a long time it's been about sex, drugs and rock and roll...did this come in with the debts?"

Certainly it has long been about sex, drugs etc. What I think has changed is the massive industry of packaged student culture, which has grown up to cater to the larger number of students. In our town there always seems to be a student night on. There is always somewhere to for them to spend their borrowed money. But, I'm an old fogey and sounding like that python sketch about 'how hard it was in my day'....

grit said...

i agree... academia is big business, and needs product, so on offer is a commodified and marketed 'university experience' ... after the 'gap year experience' of course: a product targeted at an audience of 17-19 year olds ... and then the desk job in order to pay for it all. oh dear i sound cynical. i blame the beer.

Di said...

Like you I work in a university Allie, and am now slightly older than (presumably) some of the students' mothers. What you say about the changed attitude to money that relates to already being over one's head in debt seems right to me--students have become such a huge market. On the other hand, the thing I remember with most pleasure about my own university experience is the exhiliration of sitting in the library and reading and thinking. I still love that when I get the chance to do it. It's hard for most people to find that time when they're not students. And even despite the commodification and everything, that is still part of what people get when they go to university.

Would that have been worth going into serious debt for? For me, if that was the only way to get it, yes. And when I'm optimistic I think that most (not all) of the students I teach do at some point in their studies get that buzz--often when they're doing their own research, writing dissertations etc. That includes some of those who've come for the 'wrong' reasons. They all still end up in horrible debt though. Meanwhile those who don't go probably have fewer options than people who didn't go to university when we were 18, because so many more jobs have become 'degree entry' only.

HelenHaricot said...

very interesting. I spent 6 yearls at university. on of which was extra t get an extra degree [in evolutionary psychobiology - way cool!! - thogh it just says psychology on the paper]. that year I paid for living etc as no grant, and my dad paid the tuition fees - £500!! the rest was part grant and part dad and part working in hols. I hhad no debt when i left, even though the last 3 years were 48 week years with pro rata grant and no time to earn. my cousis 10 years younger have huge debts still to be paid off. hmm
i would like my girls to go to uni though, to do something that enables them to critically think, digest and wiffle waffle [ie not my main degree!!

George said...

Hi, Dani, Allie. I just wanted to say as an anonymous reader I really enjoy reading your blog. If I am lucky enough to have kids in the future, they will be home educated.

I've found this post particulary interesting as I am a mature engineering student. My parents brought me up with the understanding that should I want to go to university they would only be in agreement to help fund me if it something would have a good chance of leading to a job at the end. In someways I agree with their attitude in some ways I don't.

Anyhow, I worked for seven years, got as far as I was going to get without a degree and decided to go get the piece of paper. It's been a blessing and a curse, a large part of my degree I will never use as it is out of date with industrial practices. However, it will help me have better job prospects (more choice) and better pay. These days you often need the degree just to get a foot in the door - Catch 22 for young people today.

I've funded myself and even though my parents are no longer eligable for means testing and I could get the full loan entitlement, I never have. Fortunately, as I have some work experience I can find fairly well paid summer jobs.

If I was to give any advice to someone going to university, it is to try as far as possible (which is very difficult at eighteen) to have an idea of why you want to do the course and where it will take you. 12 thousand pounds in debt is a heck of a lot to pay off! As, one of my friends completed an English degree two years ago has found out. She now says that university was a great experience, but as far as getting a job her degree has not been particulary helpful and is she could turn back the clock she would make different choices.

Sorry for the long comment!, Georgina.

Minnie said...

I would never enourage my kids to go. Really. I think uni is so hugely over-rated; life experience is best and employers should look at that, rather than paper qualifications. Maybe i'm biased but a former bright uni-going boyfriend committed suicide and the rest of my uni-going friends are either on the drugs or alcohol...just to chill and get through the days!! Totally miserable with their lot. They are mostly teachers, which says a bit.

I'm envious of those who went and found it a positive experience. Good for them, but I bet they haven't got a big, spanking student loan to pay off, though.

I left school and went straight into a banking job. The pay got better over the years. I was the stereotypical pleb to start of with and was on £25k when I left, which was a HUGE amount in those days. I did eventually get to uni in my 40's when the kids were a little more capable and I just felt it was a huge dissapointment. Not at all what I expected. Full of immature idiots, twits and egos. Maybe it was because I was "older" and unable to put up with the bull. It was like role play gone wrong..and I'd had enough of that in the bank!!

My nearly 30 year old nephew feels the same, though. He went last year and left before the first term finished, deeming it a waste of time and full of immature, spoiled plonkers. The student loans just weren't worth the hassle and he thought the debt would be just too much to bear. I don't think he would have stayed even if it was free. The whole experience was just too childish for him. Not up to par. It's a pity, really, because I used to hear such great stories about uni life and I was so envious. Grass is greener and all that. And it's not, is it? Big lesson to learn.. at any age. Maybe it's a class thing. Dunno.

It's just too business-like now. Ruined, me thinks...in my humble opinion:O)

I miss letters, too. E-mails are too impersonal. You miss all the sparkling wit!! Writing is much more human....and personal...you can see all the mistakes..which is just fine by me. Well, that's this old fart's opinion, anyway!! 'scuse spelling:O)

Allie said...

Ooh, thanks everyone for all your interesting input to this discussion! I love to hear about people's lives - and the paths they've taken to get to where they are.

I think its undeniable that many more jobs expect lots of qualifications these days - at least in this country. Perhaps that makes it all the more important that you're not just one of the crowd with an average degree in blankology.

I do appreciate the buzz of research, even if I lack the necessary focus, commitment and brain power to do it myself. As an undergraduate I also lacked basic research skills and never dared ask a librarian for help! I was never destined to be an academic - like most students.

What I have learned about myself and studying is that if something is real in my life then I'm motivated to find out about it. Pretty self-centred, huh?

The best example of that is the effect of having children. The other day I read this scientific paper about how areas of the brain don't develop properly in institutionalised infants. I probably didn't understand half of it but I was motivated to try. That was because watching our children, and others, develop has made me passionate about the whole business. Of course, that's not 'real' learning because no one will give me a piece of paper or pay me more money for it.

Sharon said...

I really loved university. Myself and my brother were the 1st in our family, even in our large extended family, to ever go.
I studied in London, having grown up in the countryside near a small, ultra-homogeneous Irish town. The experiences of living away from home, meeting people from all round the world, and the studies all meant much to me. I had also ended up, purely by chance, at a really prestigious university with a fantastic history of radicalism and free thought.
I also meet my husband in my 3rd year!

I think I'd like my children to go too, but to have a much clearer idea of what they hope to achieve from the experience. I sometimes think they should perhaps wait until they are a bit older than average students too, perhaps early 20s. For me, I went without much thought for the future, just because I'd done well enough at A level that I could go, and to get away into the big wide world.

Lucy said...

I never made it to university. I did at one point have great dreams of being a vet but academically that was never going to happen and having had a few vet friends who 1) were still paying off their debts in their late twenties and 2) spent bankholidays euthanasing poorly pets I decided I was quite thankful not to make it. Sociology was my favourite GCSE subject and although I don't remember much I know that it opened my mind. During the A'level we went to London to hear about research sociologists had done and all the while I was in South Africa listening to different peoples stories I imagined myself as a Sociologist documenting my own personal research.

On another note reading parts of your post gave me the same feeling I got when watching The Time Machine (2002), lol.

Beth said...

I was going to comment yesterday, but couldn't find my brain. I think I have it now ;-)

It's different in the US in the sense that university is wildly, ridiculously expensive. One has to take out enormous loans. And, if one is poor enough, there are grants. But it is dependent on states and federal budgets, which vary from year to years, so the funds ebb and flow while the costs rise every year. Full scholarships are very rare. Very few people have the wherewithal to pay out of pocket. So the very cost makes going to college an elite and class-associated endeavor.

I tend to feel somewhat cynical about the entire process of acquiring a BA/BS. In and of itself, the degree does not translate into higher earning power (or at least, only very rarely, for certain jobs). I do not, in any way, believe that a college degree is a requisite for leading a good and fulfilling life.

In terms of going for the self-enrichment, and education ... well, I homeschool my kids for a reason! I know from my own experience of achieving my BA at the age of 40 that I've learned nothing during this process that I didn't already know, or couldn't have acquired another way.

So why go?

Because it is the only way to get into graduate school. And that does lead to something very practical indeed. In my case, a master's degree in library science will mean that I can work as a librarian. It will mean financial stability for my family for the next 25-odd years.

But it wouldn't have been necessary if I hadn't been laid off three years ago from my very good, work from home, job of thirteen years.

Life. It has away of tipping you on your head.

My son (18) wants to go to college. He'd like to be a police officer and here they prefer to hire college graduates. So that's a very practical usage he'll get out of his degree.