I found myself trying to explain the concept of university to my five-year old daughter the other day. As conversations go, it wasn’t as random as considering why farts make a funny noise in the bath, whether spiders really do have friends, or why that lady over there is wearing a blue dress. Still, it wasn’t the easiest thing to explain. We’ve done the ‘Big School’ conversations, because she started there this term, and we did the ‘Grown Up School’ ones too, from when I did a course last year as a mature student. But explaining undergraduate university was a whole other level of complicated. Try explaining to a little one that it is the place you might go if you want to, after you’ve finished the bit of learning that you have to do and that it is the bit of learning that may change everything in your world. For somebody so little, it just doesn’t compute. My daughter’s response was to tell me that one of her buddies at school goes to university (all of her buddies are five). Erm, okay, let’s try this discussion again in a few years.
I was trying to explain it to her because I was heading off for my reunion weekend and she was very curious about where I was going and what I would be up to. I thought it was important that she knew where her Mum was off to, but also I couldn’t contain my own excitement as I was about to step back in time and relive some old memories of awesome drunkenness and debauchery that I had as a late-teen.
I studied for my undergraduate degree at Lincoln University. I rocked up in 1999, seventeen years ago this month. My mum and my sister brought me and I couldn’t have been more ready for my student adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lovely childhood and teenage-hood at home, but I was a shy teenager and I was desperate for some coming-of-age, rite-of-passage scenes to put into the film of my life. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even notice that my mum cried when she left me in Lincoln. I only found that out a few years later. I imagine I will be completely the same when/if my kids go off to university too.
In a few words, I absolutely bloody loved being at Lincoln. It was my awakening. A small university in the East of England that very few people had heard of at the time, it had a tight-knit community of students because there weren’t many of us back then, and it was a gorgeous place to spread my wings, have huge amounts of fun and make lots of mistakes too.
I think about that now and I wonder what the university experience would be like if I was going as a teenager now, or even what it would be like if my children go off in 13 years’ or so time. The biggest change I think I would feel is the lack of privacy and space to make my mistakes. Everything seems to play out online and in public now in a way it never did in 1999. If we wanted a photograph, we took it with disposable cameras and then took the film to Boots to get developed and inevitably came back a week later to find ‘advisory’ labels all over the photos. Now, photos are instantly available but also instantly public. How can you comfortably get things wrong if the world is watching you? There is no room to grow in comfort. How sad that is. I think so anyway. But perhaps it is different for today’s teenagers when it is all they know.
If I were going off to university now, would I see myself as much more of a consumer? Would I want value for money and would I expect more from my lecturers because the fees are high? Perhaps. I was in the first cohort of fee-paying students in the country so I suppose none of us felt like consumers really, we just wanted to learn and earn our degrees.
And if I could give any advice to students now or to my children in the future, as they are about to go off and spread their wings, what would it be? Enjoy it? Absolutely. Work hard? Yes, but don’t lose sight of the social importance of university too. It is what shapes you. As I sat with my friends at our reunion, we discussed whether we would choose the same degree again and do anything differently. For me, there is no question that I would do everything exactly as I did. I sometimes wish I could drop back into that time for a little while and enjoy it all over again. I hope this year’s cohort of new students around the country have the same richness of experience in their studies and in seventeen years’ time, who knows, maybe they will be fresh from their own reunions.