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.