There has been much attention given to university students in recent weeks. Most people seem sympathetic to their plight – forced as they were to return to their studies despite Covid-19, many of them suffering quarantine, some of them in uncomfortable lodgings and residencies, a few left short of rations, all expected to forego the joys of restaurants and pubs.
Conditions have proved unpopular with them, especially for those entering their first year. No freshers’ week, limited opportunities to socialise, little contact with lecturers. There have been calls from student representatives and from parents to allow resident students to return home. The universities have not been keen, whether for financial reasons or in order to stop the spreading of the virus.
There have also been some less kind comments in the press and social media suggesting that the young people are responsible for their own problems (boozing and cosying up when they were told not to) and telling them to ‘grow up’ like their hardy forebears had to do.
It has all caused me to recall my first term at Glasgow University back in 1966, and to wish the students of 2020 all the very best in putting up with the fix within which they find themselves.
No one in my family had ever gone to university. At the end of my secondary education I could only think of one job that I wished to do – to teach English. This required a university degree, and so, having received no advice from anyone on the school staff, I applied to study English at Glasgow (nowhere else). Unfortunately, I was part of the ‘post-war bulge’, all of whom seemed to have decided to do the same thing. My application was rejected, and I set off to look for a job.
I was about to begin work (reluctantly) at the Caterpillar factory in Uddingston when I received a letter from Glasgow, offering me a place in the Faculty of Engineering. Apparently, as I had mediocre passes in maths and science, I could just meet their entrance requirements.
An innocent abroad, I went back to my secondary school to ask for advice. Would I be wise to accept this place? A member of staff, who had probably attended university 40 years earlier, assured me that, ‘Once you are in, you can change your course to something else, as long as you don’t fail exams.’ He was completely wrong, but I didn’t find that out until later.
There can never have been anyone less prepared or worse advised for starting university than I was. I had studied no engineering at any point in my schooling. Not only did I struggle with mathematics, but I loathed it. I could just about cope with rudimentary physics, but chemistry was pretty much beyond me. I remember vividly an introductory lecture on Vector Analysis. I did not know what a Vector was, and the professor did not feel it necessary to start with such basic explanations. I had no idea how to use The University Library, and only went to The Reading Room in order to ogle haughty girls from fee-paying schools.
When, after the Christmas break, I went to see someone called The Adviser of Studies, to ask what I should do about my course, having crashed in all but one of my first term exams, he said ‘My advice to you, son, is to leave.’ So I did.
There were jobs in those days, and I quickly became a Commercial Apprentice (i.e. Trainee Clerk) with The British Steel Corporation. I stuck that for two years, licking my wounds, until the boredom got to me, and I set off to College of Education to train as a primary school teacher. Only then did I learn how to survive in higher education, and when I was qualified, I started further study with the newly formed Open University.
I can only hope that there is more preparation and support available to the new students of today than existed back in October 1966, but even if some of them struggle, as I did, to make sense of their experiences, I would reassure them that there are always ways forward, even after initial disasters.