With tuition fees soaring, clubs closing, and graduate prospects dwindling, the university experience has changed beyond recognition in the space of ten years
If I ever had to explain to an alien invader what the ‘traditional’ British university experience is meant to be like, I would show them Fresh Meat. If you’re unfamiliar, the Channel 4 sitcom follows six students as they navigate university life in Manchester: there’s lots of sex (including a bit of flatcest), loads of drugs (and one trip to A&E), and on one occasion, a keg of beer upended into a bath as one of them cries: “this is what being at university is all about!”
Fresh Meat aired between 2011 and 2016, and already, it’s become dated. That’s not to say the show made out student life in the 2010s to be one big, riotous, coke-fuelled party: a lack of student accommodation means the sextet of students are shunted into a house share miles away from campus; in one episode, they all bundle into a coach down to London to protest rising tuition fees; working-class Vod briefly considers joining a commune after racking up an eye-watering £70,000 debt towards the end of the series.
These are serious issues which affected university students in the 2010s – and continue to affect university students today. But at least the characters in Fresh Meat got to go to seminars and lectures and get their work marked. They went to parties, or to the pub, or out clubbing. Most notably, in the end, the boys all get grad jobs in London, while the girls decide to travel to Laos. These basic facets of university life now seem like a utopian fantasy for many students – and in light of all this, it’s hardly surprising that research published in early February found that one-third of young people agree with the statement “university is a waste of time”.
And who can blame them? The failure of universities to listen to lecturers’ demands for better pensions and fairer pay and conditions has resulted in universities being blighted by strike action every year since 2018, with many students losing weeks’ and weeks’ worth of teaching in total. Research published by the National Union of Students in 2021 found that 73 per cent of students supported the strikes, and doubtless most are more frustrated with greedy vice-chancellors than their overworked and underpaid lecturers – but the fact remains that students have suffered and lost out on valuable teaching time due to the disputes.
If you’re unlucky enough to have been at uni in the past three years, you’ll have also been hit with the double whammy of strikes and COVID, which saw students barred from the usual Freshers’ Week foam parties and forced to attend lectures and seminars online. This is, unfortunately, what happened to Liv, 23, who is currently a third-year student at King’s College London. “My teaching’s disrupted because lecturers are constantly on strike, and the first half was online due to COVID,” she says. “I haven’t really had a solid uni experience. I’ve just had a very disruptive time.”
Halima, 22, feels similarly. “Just before the pandemic hit, we had strikes upon strikes upon strikes, then we had to go into lockdown, and now I’m in my masters year and we have strikes upon strikes upon strikes. That’s not to blame the lecturers – I’d blame the university [execs] – but yeah, nothing has changed,” they say. “There’s this idea that university should enrich you, but it really is just like a money-making scheme at the moment.”
The impact of coronavirus on the social side of the university experience is still keenly felt, too, despite all restrictions lifting in July 2021. One in five UK nightclubs have closed since the advent of COVID, including student favourites Mission in Leeds and Code in Sheffield. In any case, most students can barely afford to go out regardless, with 77 per cent admitting to “cutting back on socialising” to save money during the cost of living crisis. “[Student union] societies just didn’t exist,” Liv says, reflecting on her first few terms at King’s. “And they still don’t exist in the way they should,” she adds, explaining that the student newspaper she writes for is predominantly run via Discord, as opposed to in-person meetings. “It’s very weird.”
Things aren’t great post-graduation, either. The gap year is dead and vast numbers of young people are returning to live with their parents after trying and failing to land a decent entry-level job. Personally, I applied to 60 different jobs between July and October 2020 while living at my parents’ house, before finally ending up in a role which paid a few pence over minimum wage and required no critical thinking or creativity or any of the skills I’d spent four years honing. Sure, I wasn’t expecting to become a Sunday Times bestselling author or waltz into a glamorous editorial job with a six-figure salary fresh out of uni – but I was expecting to, I don’t know, find a role doing something not entirely soul-destroying and be paid fairly for it. I thought that was all those hours in the library and all that debt was for.
Granted, I was applying for jobs in 2020, which was a grim time for anyone looking for work. But the issue predates the pandemic. The ‘graduate premium’ – the increased income that graduates can normally expect in comparison to those who didn’t go to uni – has fallen dramatically in recent years. While graduates born in 1970 earned 19 per cent more than non-graduates by the age of 26, graduates born in 1990 earned just 11 per cent more. That’s if the ‘graduate premium’ even exists for the majority of students – a 2016 report from the Intergenerational Foundation argued that “apart from Oxbridge, medical and dentistry graduates, there is no guaranteed graduate earnings premium for the many young people entering higher education”.
“There’s this idea that university should enrich you, but it really is just like a money-making scheme at the moment” – Halima, 22
This chimes with Liv’s opinion. “If you’re going to be a doctor or a nurse, then obviously you have to go to uni,” she says. “But if you’re doing a humanities subject or English like I did, then I don’t think uni is that beneficial to you at all.” The stats don’t lie: recent research found that graduates with degrees in subjects like English, Criminology, and Film earnt far less than their counterparts who studied Economics, Pharmacology, or Medicine. To someone who has grown up in more economically stable times, it may seem a little grubby or soulless to abandon one’s passions in pursuit of money. But in today's climate, where young people are less financially secure than their home-owning parents, it’s the rational choice.
It is still worth saying, though, that without my English degree, I might never have delved into Chaucer and learnt that people have always been a little capricious and messy and complicated – and that we should all be less harsh on ourselves and others for simply being human. I might never have read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s portrayal of the pain of living in between two cultures in Nervous Conditions, and felt a little less alone thereafter. I might never have known of the existence of Radclyffe Hall, the amazing, radical lesbian writer with a penchant for dachshunds. Sure, I’m less likely to earn as much as my counterparts who studied law or medicine, but I felt enriched by my experience – my worldview challenged, my capacity for empathy expanded – and that surely counts for something.
Still, a hunger to learn and be pushed academically is largely why Halima chose to do their masters, and they still feel short-changed. “I came here to learn, but there are all these obstacles in my way that are stopping me from learning,” they say. “So I’m just like, ‘why am I here then?’”
Both Liv and Halima stop short of saying university is a total waste of time. But it’s clear the student experience is no longer what it was 30 or 20 or even ten years ago, no matter how you define its ‘value’ – be it increased earnings potential or high-quality teaching. I don’t think we’re going to get to a stage where we see student numbers plummet and universities shutter any time soon – they’ve lasted nearly 1,000 years and survived everything from plagues to wars, after all. But we could very easily get to a point where the mental wellbeing and financial security of graduates is totally decimated, with university increasingly reverting to a domain reserved for society’s wealthy elite – if we’re not there already.