The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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