Thursday, 31 January 2013

University - then and now

I’m challenging myself to click ‘Random Article’ in Wikipedia, and write about whatever article comes up first – and these random articles seem to be becoming more and more obscure. The first one to come up today was a short article about the ‘Popular University of Chontalpa’ which is a public co-ed university in Cardenas, Mexico. I did take a look at the university website, but of course it was all in Spanish, and my knowledge of Spanish ends at ‘Dos cervezas por favor’.
So – universities? I could write about my own experience at university (a long time ago!) and tell you how I hated my first year, started to enjoy my second year, and loved my third year. I could talk about the old and draughty buildings (Victorian and Edwardian), and the equally old (or so it seemed) professors and lecturers, the dusty stacks and huge mahogany tables in the Arts Library, and the chipped formica-topped tables in the students’ union café (in the basement) where we queued for stale sandwiches at lunchtime. I prefer not to think of the small dingy room I rented in a terrace of Victorian houses which had been all joined together to provide cheap ‘student accommodation’ (with one bathroom for about a dozen students!). All a far cry from the modern academic and residential campuses that have been developed since my time there.
However, looking back, I had one great advantage over the students of today. My tuition fees were paid by my local education authority (which was the norm then), and I also received a living grant from them. A grant, not a loan, and more than adequate to pay all my living, travel and other expenses. I didn’t have to find a job during term-time on order to pay my way, although I did have summer vacation jobs. The main effect, though, was that when I finished University, I had no debts whatsoever and, at the time, jobs were plentiful.
I feel sorry for today’s students who will finish university with about £50K (minimum) of debt to pay back and, if the current recession continues, they’ll face a dearth of available jobs suited to their academic achievements. In the 1960s, one of our Prime Ministers told us we’d ‘never had it so good’ – and in the case of students, I think he was right! We didn’t realise then how lucky we were compared with today’s students.
It’s something we need to be aware of in our writing too. If our characters have been students, they’ll have debts to pay off (unless, of course, they have rich families). The heroine in my current ‘work in progress’ has financial problems, partly due to having to pay back her college loans, and has to make a decision when an expected source of money is presented to her.


  1. I remember well my university life with great fondness as it presented a new exciting life. Immensely stimulating and a change from baby talk.(I was a mature student) I too had a grant though not living allowance and it was a boon so feel very fortunate.
    As a Head Of a University Careers Service I saw the struggles that students from a later era really struggling and the struggles have got more and more difficult over recent years. It must be daunting.
    Any present day author will be writing about a different life where stress and such related mental illnesses are more prevalent. What a shame.

  2. ah the good old days... college was awesome for me. cant believe its been 20+ years! ah!
    my roommate struggled, but she had lots of friends who sought her advice and leaned on her and it seemed to help her grow too.

    i worry about the current & future grads finding jobs. what do we do with them all?!

  3. Annette - I feel very privileged that University left me with none of the stresses (and future struggles)faced by today's students.

    Tara - you're right about current graduates and jobs. So many of them can't find jobs appropriate to their educational level, and it seems to me that we are wasting the expertise of a whole generation of young people.