TERMS AND CONDITIONS
IT’S BEEN 37 YEARS SINCE KEVIN McKENNA MATRICULATED AT GLASGOW UNIVERSITY, DURING WHICH TIME THE FUNDAMENTALS OF FURTHER EDUCATION HAVE CHANGED DRAMATICALLY. SO WHAT CAN TODAY’S NEW UNDERGRADUATES LOOK FORWARD TO OVER THE COURSE OF THEIR DEGREES?
Kevin Mckenna speaks to freshers and university staff as the academic cycle begins again
DURING Freshers’ Week at Glasgow University in 1980 I seemed curiously transfixed by the political struggles of poor people in Latin American and African republics. I wasn’t choosy with my favours though and so the downtrodden citizens of many other countries should be reassured that I had their backs too.
By the end of the week I had collected so many badges that I must have looked like a Marxist pearly king. Hands Off Nicaragua and while we’re at it Hands Off El Salvador too. And Leave Namibia Alone if you don’t mind (a cause that became close to my heart when I was persuaded to attend a Friends of SWAPO cheese and wine by a very engaging black female student with a Birmingham accent I’d met at a reggae night in the Queen Margaret Union). She had been reading Victor Hugo at a time when I was reading Victor war comics.
Lest I be accused of neglecting issues closer to home I wanted the Troops Out of Ireland and demanded that the UK divest itself of its nuclear weapons … like right now, if it’s all the same to you.
Yet I remained troubled at the thought of encountering a student in my English literature class from somewhere like Uganda or Cuba. It would have been awkward trying to explain away the absence of their country’s plight on my lapels. So I joined Amnesty International. I was a selfappointed and virtual prison visitor for the world’s weary and heavy-burdened.
I also had a cheque for £393 burning a hole in my pocket, my grant for the first university term. After this was deposited at the Bank of Scotland on Byres Road (it could never have been the Royal Bank) I embarked on a contest with several of my chums to be the first to reach penury. I secured an early advantage in that race by spending almost a third of it on a long, black leather coat from Lord John’s in Argyle Street of the type that you are not really supposed to wear outside of a Black Sabbath concert. At 3am every morning of Week Nothing (the early 1980s version of Freshers’ Week) I stoated back to Horselethill hall of residence full of vodka and self-righteousness and shared soft-pack cigarettes and Jack Daniels with Rudy, a gentle and jet-lagged American student.
IATTEMPTED to rekindle some of those memories this week when I visited the first day of Freshers’ Week at the campuses of Glasgow and Strathclyde universities. Yet it was impossible to shake off the feeling that, 37 years later, you had become a mere spectral presence at a festival of youth and optimism. I’d had my time and this time belonged to them.
For the purposes of an article like this you are supposed to gather some of the voices of the new class of 2017 as they embark on their journeys into adulthood. Up by University Avenue and along the gardens towards the Queen Margaret Union they were traipsing along in little groups gathering flyers and friends. Near the university library a cordon of free food vendors surrounded trestle tables where the brightest youth of many nations began shyly to inspect the new friends they had made in the matriculation queue earlier that day.
You felt that something sacred was happening here and you didn’t want to breenge in like a Glaswegian version of Pennywise, Stephen King’s malevolent clown, and intrude on their happy curiosity. They all seemed to be in a bubble and you didn’t want them worrying unduly overnight about what they might have said to the strange-looking, middle-aged journalist.
Up at Strathclyde, though, I encountered Emily Kelly from Bishopbriggs, a northern suburb of Glasgow. She is studying English, history and psychology, and admitted to feeling a little uncertain about what to expect from Freshers’ Week. “It’s been really busy but everyone seems to go out of their way to be so welcoming. I thought it might be difficult to get to know people but it hasn’t at all. Everyone’s in the same boat; they’re all new to this. And it’s been great to meet some of the academic staff, all of whom have been so encouraging and helpful. You get the impression they all want you to succeed and to get the most out of this experience. I’m really embracing it now.”
At Glasgow there are teams of older students who have volunteered in their red and yellow T-shirts to help the new undergraduates and to guide them around a campus which each year seems to sprawl further out over the west end of the city. In the early 1980s we encountered older students, often from the fee-paying establishments, wearing badges saying “feel a little Fresher every day”. The lecturers were often remote and wraith-like figures reading 20-year-old notes in a voice that suggested they’d rather be hanging wallpaper in the dark.
In a thoughtful article for the Glasgow Guardian, the university’s student newspaper, writer Jennifer Bowey addresses other issues around Freshers’ Week. “Something that affects a lot of people starting university, but probably wouldn’t be the first topic you’d choose when speaking to people you’ve just met, is
mental health. Students are notorious for drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and some students are using it as a coping mechanism.”
This is the busiest week of the year for Kate Powell, president of Glasgow University’s Student Representative Council, and her colleagues. She lists the main challenges facing students in 2017. “Student loans don’t cover their rent and living costs meaning they are under pressure to find work and manage their studies alongside,” she says. “And we are seeing an increase in the number of students with mental health issues of varying degrees of severity which are closely linked to financial difficulties and anxiety about securing employment. Student numbers are ever increasing, leaving students feeling a lot like small fish in a big pond. Those in big classes or those who live at home find it difficult to integrate, which can lead to all sorts of problems both emotionally and academically.”
In 2017 though, there is a palpable sense of the teaching staff wanting to reach out to the students and to help make their stretch at university a memorable one. Willy Maley, the professor of Renaissance studies in English literature, says he feels a responsibility to give all of his students every chance to succeed.
“This is a special time for them and it’s a privilege for us to be a big part of that,” he says. “I was one of nine children growing up in a working-class background who had to reach university via studies at night-school. I’m acutely aware of the challenges that university can hold for young people from a background similar to mine.
“And although Glasgow University has made a great deal of progress in widening access to its courses for young people from disadvantaged communities I want to see more. I’d like to see more universities adopting some sort of weighting principle when assessing school grades. For instance, a B pass achieved at a school in a poor neighbourhood minus the artificial assistance of expensive private tuition and amid socially chaotic conditions must be the equivalent of an A secured in more academically advantageous schools.”
IN the early 1980s much of our time before term started was spent checking out small ads in assorted newsagents’ windows for student accommodation. The lucky ones who secured spacious, clean and comfortable flats were relatively few in number. This was a lottery that left many students vulnerable to the predations of private and exploitative landlords offering rooms at inflated prices in properties that were hovels. Now, large swathes of land in and around the city centre have been given over to purpose-built student accommodation that would have been considered space age a generation ago.
More than 13 per cent of Glasgow’s population of 560,000 are students and this has led to a Klondyke for specialists in constructing student dwellings. Overseas students from wealthy families are snapping up luxury, purpose-built accommodation that can cost almost £1000 a month in rent, the most expensive outside London. Of course, they long ago ceased to be called
flats; now they are called studios and they come with gyms, free broadband and a weekly cleaning service. Some developments possess cinemas, games rooms and themed entertainment nights for those occasions when Balzac and Descartes have lost their allure. There are cruise ships jouking about the Mediterranean with worse facilities than these. A recent survey by the commercial property consultants Cushman and Wakefield revealed that the number of new student flats in 2016 increased by around 2000, bringing the total to more than 14,500. Further expected increases in numbers have helped keep down rent rates in flats more ordinary to around £135 per week.
The privations of student life in the 1980s were more than offset though by a relative absence of financial concern. The last time I had a disposable income was during my inchoate university period. As well as the maximum grant, which was a none-tooterrible £1100 a year (plus travelling expenses), I had three fairly lucrative parttime jobs at various points as well as fulltime work during the summer as a nursing assistant, all untaxed. Somehow (the circumstances are hazy) I succeeded in claiming rent relief during the summer months because I was able to stay at my parental home. And so I proceeded to have a ball during which I understandably forgot that I was supposed to be studying for a degree.
In 2017, though, the privilege of embarking on a university education represents a major financial undertaking for an ordinary family. Student loans of more than £5500 a year mean most graduates will be saddled with repayments until well into their 30s. Glasgow Caledonian University has estimated that a single student will need £10,000-£11,500 to cover living expenses
for a full calendar year. Such running costs restrict the academic choices of many families to establishments nearer home so that their children can stay under the parental roof. If I’d so desired I could have saved enough from my university years to have opened up a small business.
IFIRST met the principal of Glasgow University, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, at Freshers’ Week 1980. There he was strolling down University Gardens arm-in-arm with one of the smartest and most attractive pupils at my old school en route to his economics lecture. I was on my way to my second Happy Hour of the day at the fabled Beer Bar. This partly explains why he became a knight of the realm and one of the UK’s top economists and I have since laboured as your humble scribbler. I found him to be a cheerful and agreeable chap then who hailed from an unremarkable background similar to mine. His accolades seem not to have changed him much. Earlier this month Glasgow University rose eight places to 80th in the list of the world’s top 200 universities, an achievement of which he is understandably proud.
Yet he is prouder still of the significant progress Glasgow has made in widening access to students from disadvantaged communities. He also acknowledges what he calls “massive differences” in the learning and teaching experiences between 1980 and now. “All round, it’s a much improved experience,” he says. “I’d much prefer to have been a student now than when I first encountered university. It’s much better as there are far more opportunities for the teaching staff to work in partnership with the students. Universities are much more aware of the need to improve the all-round experience of their studies here beyond merely the academics.
“Today we have more than 300 student societies covering every possible endeavour, but a significant number of these focus on volunteering in the wider community which is something we are especially keen to encourage.” He cites encouraging statistics which point to success in widening access. In the two years prior to 2016 the quantity of new undergraduates coming from the bottom 40 per cent of Scotland’s most deprived areas (according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) has risen from 26.1 per cent to 28.6 per cent. “We also have a Reach for the Professions programme which seeks to enable these students to access the most sought-after professions such as law and medicine where they encounter other obstacles. By dispensing bursaries from external partners we are trying to free some students from the burden of having to take on a part-time job to make ends meet.”
In the gorgeous lawns of Glasgow University’s quadrangles groups of Asian and European students gather here and there for selfies. And you find yourself desperately hoping that most of them will be sufficiently charmed by these enchanting buildings and by the city beyond to make them want to stay here a while when their studies have finished. They are vital to a modern, enlightened and economically viable Scotland. And you want to tell them they are welcome here, even as the hard Brexiteers of the Tory Right are seeking to send them away.
Kevin Mckenna in the quadrangles of Glasgow University, where he enrolled in 1980
From top: the scene outside Glasgow University Library during Freshers’ Week; new first-year students on University Avenue; and a young Kevin Mckenna, back row left
The prospects for 2017’s intake of undergraduates at Glasgow University and those Kevin Mckenna’s generation faced when they embarked on their degrees may be wildly different but both can savour the sublime architecture on Gilmorehill