University isn’t very Team GB

Yes the achievements of Team GB at the Rio Olympics were amazing, fantastic, and other superlatives. But as our athletes return home after doing their part to help work through 450,000 condoms, to soak up the public’s adulation, moisturise their private bits, and probably have a Zika blood test or five – hundreds of thousands of students prepare to head off to university, where those in England will run up astronomical debt as a result of the £9,000 a year tuition fees.

I went to university-ish. It was never my intention or ambition to go to university, but my A-Level maths lecturer persuaded me to at least apply in case I changed my mind. His name was Tim Ashmore, and he ticked all the boxes of being my best, most influential, engaging, and subsequently favourite teacher from throughout the entirety of my educational meanderings. Sorry to all you other teachers, you were all a close second, except for some of you – Yes I’m thinking of you Mrs Thomas from class 4 first year primary, who is now almost certainly bringing down the mood in hell and being a horrible nasty old bag to everybody there too. Hope you’ve got a red hot poker up your arse or something.

I remember when I first met Tim back in 1994, he had the long grey hair of a mad professor like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, shaving it all off a year later at about the same time that Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins also went for the slap head look. I had a massive amount of respect for Tim and so did as he suggested and applied for six universities even though I did not intend to go, and Tim began his campaign of persuading me that university was the right path for me.

I don’t remember all of the universities I applied to, but none of them had set their standards too high. One of them was definitely Kingston University. I remember that one of them was definitely Kingston University because Kingston University is where I ended up going. Yes Tim won, and in fact Kingston is where I still live.

A mate of mine from back home in Liverpool had gone to Kingston the year before and seemed to be having a great time, so I had kind of decided already that if I was going to go anywhere, I might as well go there. Yes that was the depth of my consideration on the matter. I think I actually put more brain energy into deciding which Internet service provider to sign up with, in the end I went with Virgin, but AOL came a very close second – that was a tough decision.

One of the other universities that I applied to was Coventry University, and I have no idea why I picked Coventry, I think possibly just to fill a gap on the form and because they didn’t seem to expect that much in terms of grades. The reason I remember that Coventry was also definitely one of the universities I applied to is because of the series of letters they sent me.…

First of all they sent me a letter offering me an interview. Very nice of them I thought, but as I had already decided that if I was going to go anywhere, then it might as well be Kingston, not only did I not attend the interview, but I didn’t even respond to the invitation to let them know that I wouldn’t be attending. I was young and carefree, a rebel of sorts, well in terms of responding to official correspondence anyway. Even to this day my mail stacks up for weeks before I bother to sift through it, and then a couple more weeks pass before I deal with anything urgent.

The day of the interview slipped past without me even noticing, until about a week later when I was surprised to receive a second letter from Coventry University. It said that as I had failed to turn up to the interview, and had not informed them of my intention not to attend, they had taken it upon themselves to schedule a second interview date for me and that they looked forward to seeing me then.

Again, I never went for the interview and I never replied to the invitation. That one went straight in the bin. The date of the interview came and went and I didn’t think any more of it, until roughly a couple of weeks later when I was even more surprised to find a third letter from Coventry University on the hallway floor.

“Congratulations!” it said, “We are pleased to offer you a place.”

“Wow” I thought. “Coventry University must be proper shit. No wonder that’s where people get sent when nobody else wants to talk to them, Coventry will take anybody.”

As a uni, Kingston was ok I suppose. I chose to do Software Engineering, which is just a fancy pants name for computer programming and some other geek stuff. As the first year though seemed to be aimed at bringing those students up to speed who had never actually seen a computer before, or done any mathematical sums beyond subtracting small numbers of apples from slightly larger numbers of apples, the course started off extremely slow and basic, and I was bored by the end of the first week.

In fact that first year was so slow and basic that I very nearly failed it. I was far more enthused by the social aspect of university and waking up in time for the second daily showing of Neighbours, that I didn’t really do a great deal of work in that first year – missing 96% of lectures, and eating zero apples

Everything hung on a single interview with one of my lecturers whose module I was on the cusp of passing, or failing, depending on whether you are an optimist or a realist. His surname was Ling, and his was one of the lectures that I obviously hadn’t attended at all, as when he sat down opposite me for the interview, I don’t think I hid the fact that I was gobsmacked that he was white and English. If you can imagine the face of somebody thinking “Wow, you’re not Chinese” – that’s what I probably looked like. I mean, come on, computer stuff, Ling, that’s got Chinese written all over it hasn’t it? Apparently not.

He did pass me, probably out of guilt that he wasn’t Chinese, and I did pick up the effort for the remainder of my time there – albeit very slightly – and I ended up passing my course with a fairly average drinkers degree of a 2:2.

Considering that I don’t use my degree in my chosen occupation, a perfectly reasonable question is – Do I think it was all worth it?… both for me and the tax payer I suppose.

Well, in a word, yes. I still live here less than a mile from Kingston University. I’ve been here now for twenty years. I live here with my wife and daughter and I still have the close group of friends that I made twenty years ago when arriving at the halls of residence for the first time. University was full of so many amazing experiences and in many ways it has defined my adult life.

Of course, if I had never gone to university, then maybe I would be the billionaire founder of a .com start up, or the lead singer of a stadium filling rock band, or dead, or all three – who knows. The fact of the matter is though that I’m fairly happy with the way things have turned out, and uni was a big part of that for me, so yes, well done Tim, you were right after all – and thanks!

When I went to uni though, there were no tuition fees and so I came away with just the debt amassed from the student loans available to me for living costs which totalled about 6k. Last year the average student debt for graduates was 44k. That’s just fucking ridiculous to be honest and as a progressive nation we should be ashamed of it.

Would I have made the decision to get into 44k of debt back when I was a skinny eighteen year old kid making my mind up whether or not I should go to university? Definitely not. Ok I might have ended up going to Coventry as they probably would have paid me to go there. For me, university wasn’t a dream, but rather an affordable opportunity for which I am extremely grateful.

University will of course attract the privileged minority for whom 44k – plus the rest – will no doubt come straight out of Mummy and Daddy’s bank account, after all its not earning any interest in there at the moment anyway. But for the rest, and not only those considered to be underprivileged and poor, but also many of those considered to be today’s middle classes, 44k is a bloody mountain to overcome at such a young age. I don’t buy the argument that graduates will earn more throughout their life and so should be indebted for this non guaranteed potential. If that’s the case then make them pay it back once income exceeds 100k, rather than the measly £17,495 that it is now. Unlike me, those that are academically gifted and work hard will get good grades and do the jobs for which I am not suited or capable, and for the rest of us it simply adds improvement to what we started with, all of which goes towards making this country more prosperous.

This isn’t to say that university and Academia are, or should be for everybody, but we throw vocational courses and sports scholarships around ten a penny to all that want them and are gifted in those respects. Will these Olympic stars be paying back their national lottery funding with their newly negotiated sponsorship deals? Do high earning electricians and plumbers pay back their vocational course fees even though they earn considerably more than the vast majority of new and recent graduates?

Rising house prices are certainly a factor when it comes to the decreasing rates of home ownership in this country, but also so has to be the fact that hundreds of thousands of kids are coming away from university every single year, owing what in essence is a fairly substantial house deposit for their studies before they’ve even thought about where they might live. We are setting this country’s future on their way with massive debts to overcome before they’ve even started, and we wonder why family instability, mental health issues, and suicide rates are at the levels they currently are.

Theresa May insists that she will be a Prime Minister of the people, so here’s your chance, sort it out love, because the whole arrangement is a crock of shit at the moment – It’s unfair, it’s unhealthy, it’s unsustainable, it’s not very Team GB.

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