A diversion from the main subject of this blog, but I do think this is an important topic – and key to why I am able to do what I do here, and for a living.
On the whole, I’ve had an extremely good education. First, kindergarten and prep school – my grandfather owned a prep school in Winchester (the now-closed Nethercliffe).
That excellent education – and it was of a quality that I think should be available to everyone, not just the few who can gain assistance with fees, or have a wealthy family – enabled me to gain a place to study Computing Science at Imperial College.
As a student starting in 1986, I received a full maintenance grant. There were no tuition fees, and no student loans; those who, like me, started a their course in ’86 were among the last to graduate before loans were introduced for the 1990/91 academic year.
(A brief aside: looking at the fees for Imperial, including student halls, I reckon that to do the course I did, you’d be spending almost £60,000 all in. My late twin brother went to Cambridge; between the two of us, we’d have had to take on over £100,000 in debt. I honestly think that would have ruled university out for both of us, as I believe fees will for many).
I don’t think it’s terribly boastful to say that actually, I’m quite clever. I’m not a genius, but I could almost certainly have done better at Imperial than a third class degree, if I’d applied myself.
I didn’t. I spent a lot of time doing what it’s fashionable – especially amongst those who haven’t gone to university – to call ‘messing around.’ There’s a sneering tone adopted by some commentators on the student protests which suggests that these people aren’t really studying, or they’re not doing ‘proper’ courses. And “why should we pay for people to doss about for three years?”
Frankly, if it wasn’t for all the ‘messing around,’ I wouldn’t be doing the jobs I’m doing now. At best, I’d probably be cranking out technical documentation for a computer company. I certainly wouldn’t be writing the sort of things that I do, and helping to explain things to the many people who have, over the years, told me that they appreciate the information I’ve been able to share with them, in a wide range of print titles, or online.
What I did at Uni
By the end of my first week at Imperial, I was learning how to work the computer typesetter for the college newspaper, Felix. I learned how to do page layouts the old fashioned way, with scalpel and gum. On the college radio station, I learned how to present, and how to edit programmes using a chinagraph pencil, razor blade, and splicing block.
I did all this in some of my free time and also, yes, in some of the time when I should probably have been attending lectures.
But honestly, I don’t think it matters.
Sure, I got a third, when I could have done better. I also learned the rudiments of press and radio production, and discovered that I loved writing.
I interviewed Shirley Williams and someone from the South African Embassy. I got to see inside some parts of the BBC, and met people who had followed the path from student media to professional media. And most important of all, I realised that what I really wanted to do was not what I’d thought I wanted to do at sixteen, when our system of A levels forced me to make a choice that could have defined my life.
I didn’t want to just work with computers. I wanted to be a journalist. And, eventually I succeeded, with my first job on the now-defunct Computer Buyer magazine.
Why this is important
Much of this happened, I’m convinced, because I didn’t have a bank manager looking over my shoulder. I didn’t – as so many students do now – have to spend evenings and weekends working, to find money to live on, or to worry about paying back fees.
I was able to take time at university to explore other things, like the student media. Other people spent their time in different ways – in the dramatic society, or other groups and social organisations. For some of them, it was just a pastime, but for many others it has been a way to discover real skills, that lead to or enhance a career.
When you have to spend all your free time earning money, that’s not possible. And I firmly believe that denies opportunities and chances to a lot of people, and stops them fulfilling their potential.
I think that’s a very important point, all too often lost. The debate about how education is funded is vitally important (and one, really, that’s been being dodged by governments of all colours, for years). Freelance writing – what I do now – isn’t necessarily a road to immense riches, but in good years, I’m pretty certain I’m contributing more tax now than I would be if I were in another profession.
Some people might write this off as sentimental ramblings of a lefty with a privileged upbringing, and say “oh yes, we couldn’t do without the alumni of the Cambridge Footlights, could we?” but that is cherry picking, I think. Many people – including myself – benefit from university in ways far beyond their degree course. Even just from my time at Imperial, and the studen media there, I can think of quite a few people to whom that applies.
When you have an educational system that forces people into narrow choices when they’re very young, as ours does, surely universities ought to be a place where people can broaden their horizons, rather than continuing down a narrow path set when they were an adolescent?
And if that means that someone who sets out to do one thing doesn’t get a great degree, but discovers a real aptitude for something else, is that really such a bad thing?
If we continue to saddle students with debts and bills, then I fear that my generation will turn out to be one of the last very lucky ones, to be educated freely, unburdened by constant worries about debt.
Our universities will have been turned from places of education into factories for degrees, awarded to people who were forced to make choices about their life before they really knew all the possibilities open to them, and who will saddle themselves with debt in the process. And that really is worth protesting about.