Those nostalgic for their university days may recall the simplicity of shared showers, rundown rentals, and parties that always ran out of booze before midnight. Back then, being a student was a privilege, with local authorities and the government footing the bill and the prospect of a job at the end of it all but guaranteed. However, times have changed. In the early 1960s, only 4% of school leavers went to university, but by the end of the 1970s, that number had risen to approximately 14%. Nowadays, more than 40% of young people start undergraduate degrees, but this privilege comes with an increasing cost. Today’s students leave university with debts upwards of £40,000 to repay over the course of their careers.
Parents who look back on their university experiences are shocked by the luxuries that their children benefit from, such as ensuite bathrooms, flatscreen TVs, and leather sofas. While student accommodation has improved, rents have skyrocketed,claiming a larger portion of the living cost loans, meaning that many of today’s undergraduates are little better off than their parents were.
Parents also report that their children work harder and more consistently than they ever did. A significant contributor is the shift away from "big bang" finals to continuous assessment, as well as pressure to achieve a 2:1 or above degree classification, the standard now expected by most graduate employers. In 1970, only a third of students achieved the academic standard required for a first or 2:1, whilst today, that number is well over two-thirds at 70%. Today’s students are under more pressure to take on career-enhancing extracurricular activities, internships, and work experience in a bid to gain an edge in the graduate jobs market.
Despite the changes, today’s students still have an opportunity to discover lifelong interests, forge lasting friendships, and experience newfound independence. However, some believe that student life is no longer the rite of passage it once was. Gill Grinyer, a solicitor who studied history from 1973-76, notes that when she was a student, life was less stressful and competitive. She doesn’t recall worrying about what she would do when she graduated. Meanwhile, parents like Carol Fletcher, a senior financial planner based in Surrey, emphasize the importance of extracurricular activities when choosing a university.
The experience of being a student in the past may differ significantly from the experience today. Still, the fundamental value of higher education remains the same – to learn, create, and grow. Today’s students face new opportunities and obstacles but should take comfort in knowing that they are continuing to follow in the footsteps of generations of students who came before them.
During my time at Cambridge, I pursued engineering while also dedicating a significant portion of my schedule to rowing. The academic terms were brief, spanning only eight weeks each, and while I did attend the mandatory laboratory sessions, my primary objective was to contribute to the university’s rowing team. This was feasible in the late 1970s primarily because of the lack of continuous evaluation. Today, my eldest child has graduated with a degree in engineering from Birmingham, and my youngest is set to commence his studies in engineering at Durham, while my daughter is pursuing science at the University of Edinburgh. Nevertheless, they face stricter academic procedures than I did, with regular assessments that contribute significantly to their final grades. Besides the financial burden they bear – graduating with more significant loan debts than I did, the university experience for them is very much akin to what I had. They are forging lifelong friendships and meeting new people constantly.
As for me, I pursued social sciences at Lanchester Polytechnic, after which I obtained a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Brunel University in 1985. Presently, my two sons are studying chemistry – one at Sheffield, and the other one at Liverpool. While they benefit from 20-25 hours of classroom instruction each week, I only got half of that during my time. Nevertheless, the university experience remains quite similar in essence- an opportunity for students to learn how to live independently away from home in a relatively safe environment. Their university experience differs mainly in finance since I benefited from a full grant and considered myself rich during my university years. In contrast, my sons are more financially aware, with one of them creating an expenditure tracker as early as his first term.