It was fifty years ago today… Well, fifty years last week anyway. I was 18 and about to become an undergraduate at Leeds University. I was reminded of the half-century (!) by a friend I met that week, and I thought I’d commemorate the event by writing about life as a student back then.
First, how did I get there? Sheer luck, I think. I’d managed a mediocre set of A level results, but had an A grade in English Literature. That must have convinced someone at Leeds to offer me a late place. I barely had time to think about it before I landed in a large, all-male hall of residence on the Otley Road, and began my adventure.
I remember talking to some of my own students about the differences between their experience and mine. The most obvious ones, which they highlighted bitterly, were that there were no tuition fees, and that we received grants. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Tuition fees were required, actually, but we didn’t know about them, because they were paid by our local education authority. As for grants, they were means-tested based on your parents’ income, so only students from the most impoverished families received a full grant. Mine paid, at least in my first year, for my accommodation at Bodington Hall, with a very small amount left over. Otherwise, I depended on my parents to send me money for books, clothes and everything else. In another contrast to modern-day students, I never considered finding a part-time job in term time to support myself, and I knew of only one student who did: he was estranged from his parents, but nevertheless only received a means-tested grant, so he pulled pints in a pub a few nights a week. The rest of us just thought of ourselves as full-time students, because we were. In those days, it was even forbidden in some universities for students to take employment in term time: certainly at Oxbridge, and also at some of the more traditional universities.
As a result, most of us were not able to pursue the hedonistic lifestyle of student mythology. Fifty years of inflation have made the figures almost meaningless, but for the record my disposable income consisted of the twenty pounds a month my parents sent me. I paid their cheque into the bank at the start of the month, and then visited the bank each Monday, wrote a cheque to cash for £5, and that was what I had to spend that week. So, the occasional night out was largely nursing a pint for a long time in the pub, or going to a cheap gig in the university union.
The first week of orientation was mainly spent queuing for grants, library cards, and all the other bits and pieces required by the bureaucracy of the institution. We were split into groups of about ten, and given a third year guide who showed us around. Ours, a pleasant chemistry student, was very well-informed about the history of the university. I remember she said there were 10,000 students, which all of us thought was a huge number. Today, it’s approaching 40,000.
Preparing for the degree had been, necessarily, a rushed process. We were sent a rough outline of the degree, a booklist, and that was it. We went to the departmental notice board to find our names, and which classes we had to attend, and we also had to choose what were known as “subsids”: subsidiary subjects, which were studied alongside your degree subject. You could choose pretty much anything that was on offer, provided it fitted in with your timetable. I chose Roman Civilisation and Sociology, for reasons I forget.
So, having informed myself of what was expected, I prepared to enter the world of higher learning that October week half a century ago. I will continue in the next post with some memories of what an Eng Lit degree was like in 1973.