I was always supposed to go to university. No act of self-sabotage could put an end to the assumption — held by all responsible adults in my life, and shared by me — that I would be taking a degree. This despite the fact that my attitude to education was, in retrospect, discouraging. Not that I didn’t like learning. Not that I didn’t want to do well. But wow, I hated being at school.
Then I got glandular fever when I was 14, and spent six weeks mostly in bed. I was blessed with the damascene insight that no one could make me go if I chose not to. And so, I stopped. I learned that there was a threshold of non-attendance at which an intervention would be staged, and showed up just enough to avoid that. Otherwise, I claimed to be generically “ill”. No one really believed this, but no one really seemed to mind.
I stayed at home, listening to morbid records, writing diaries and reading in the garden. I did adequately in my GCSEs, and barely adequately in my A-levels. This stung my pride, but didn’t seem to matter. Whatever I was supposed to be, it wasn’t going to happen here, in the countryside, where there was one bus to town every two hours. This was not my place, even though it was the only place I’d ever known. University was where the Sarah Project would truly begin.
And it did. I started an English degree, and it was immediately clear that no amount of going to school would have been better preparation than my years of skiving. Six contact hours a week and as many novels as I could consume in the meantime? I knew how to do this! When I discovered that I didn’t like my course (too much theory), I just worked harder and got better marks, so that by the end of my first year I could offer my clutch of firsts around to other universities that would never have looked twice at my A-level grades.
I ended up, not exactly coincidentally, transferring to the university that my boyfriend was attending. And then, two weeks into my second year, I found out I was pregnant. Two days after that, I realised I was going to have this baby. I didn’t experience this exactly as a choice, though I know it was one. I experienced it as knowledge. Whatever had made its home in my belly had made me a mother, and I would have to catch up with that.
Even as the person who made that decision, I find it hard to reconcile the ambition I had at 20 with the will to throw my lot in with maternity. All I can say is that I believed I was equal to anything then, and my life so far had shown that I could overcome whatever obstacles I put into my own way. The baby would go to nursery (I assumed there would be a nursery). I would go back to university (I assumed this would be possible). The Sarah Project would continue, with some light amendments.
It’s difficult not to be conspicuous as a pregnant student. When I came back for my third year, I would introduce myself to classmates and find out they already knew me as “the pregnant one”. Well, they could hardly have missed me, with my huge belly and my dreary, hated uniform of Mothercare tunics. I understood that I wasn’t like most students, and I didn’t really mind.
For most people, university — or an arts degree at least — is the first time in their education that they realise what I realised laid out in my bed at 14, with a raging fever and a furious lymph system: no one else can force you to do this. You can choose not to. Outside my first Victorian tutorial, my peers joked about how they simply hadn’t had time to get through Middlemarch over the summer break. I had read it during breastfeeds, resting the massive paperback on the small body of my baby, trying to coax his appetite into sync with the chapter breaks.
I read the chapter where Dorothea Brooke visits her sister Celia, who has just become a mother. Dorothea watches Celia “watching the remarkable acts of the baby”, hardly knowing the person her sister has become. I felt like both sisters at once, besotted with my child and simultaneously astonished to observe my own besottedness. But I felt only annoyance for most of my classmates, who had nothing but time and no inclination. What had they come here for if they didn’t want to do the work?
More disconcerting still was the realisation that I didn’t belong in the same world as my tutors either, even as I started to fit myself for lecturing as a profession. (I wanted to write but a baby seemed an insuperable barrier to getting into journalism and academia was right there, offering me funding.) The ones who were parents were, mostly, male. For female early-career academics, the trade-off seemed impossible.
If you could complete your doctorate in three years, you still had a race to convert insecure and underpaid jobs into a proper departmental role before your fertility began to fade. I felt, smugly, that I’d carved a private path through the system, then realised I had not. The most senior women tended to be childless. This is a bit less true now than it was in the early noughties, but it’s still the case that having a baby is about the worst thing you can do for your career as a woman in academia.
I had a sturdy faith in the myth of my own exceptionalism, but not sturdy enough to believe that I was so much better than every other woman with a university career. I survived through my BA and an MA, and a little way into a DPhil, for the same reason I failed to sink myself at school and college: because there was a system that believed I would eventually succeed. I did not just “get to university”: I was carried. Teachers guided me, despite my great reluctance, through the admissions system. My parents had hand-couriered my paperwork when I was in danger of missing deadlines. And I did not just “complete my degree”. I had support — most importantly, the backing of my boyfriend, my family and my boyfriend’s family; but also, a generously subsidised and excellent student union nursery on campus.
It mattered as well that my tutors did not want to see me fail, and when I finally fell out of university it was because my doctoral supervisor simply could not deal with me having another baby: he called me a child bride and stopped answering my emails. Still, in a way, that disinterest was a relief. Before then, I had had to learn that there is nothing quite as suspect as the person in authority who takes a special interest and then takes a bit too much.
Part of the problem, nowadays, is that no one seems entirely sure what universities owe their students: complete protection from all distress, or benign neglect. Then universities minister Sam Gyimah argued that institutions should see themselves acting “in loco parentis”, with particular responsibility for the mental health of their students; but he also claimed that students were being coddled by a “culture of censorship”, suggesting that campuses were if anything too protective of their charges.
Those two apparently conflicting positions might be closer than it seems. Students are treated increasingly as consumers — they want and expect their university to look after them, and universities write policies on wellbeing and inclusion that suggest they can meet this demand. The necessary resources, however, rarely exist. A fully funded psych service is expensive. Trigger warnings and no-platforming come cheap. They may not be moral and they may not be effective, but they allow beleaguered lecturers to believe they’re discharging their duty of care, even if deferring to student demands ultimately only traps young people in permanent adolescence.
In the last few years, I’ve done some teaching at university, and the rawness of students — the childishness of them, in the safety-rails-on simulacrum of an adult life that university offers — can be painful to see. I’ve sometimes felt the same annoyance with my own classes that I did outside that Middlemarch seminar: why are you here, if you can’t manage your own life?
But the bargain of university has always included the promise that it will form you in the last stage of your growing-up: you become a part of it and emerge, finally, as a fully matriculated member of the bourgeoisie. It was never only about the education, and students will always be liable to do slightly dumb things. That might be trying to protect themselves from the literal violence of people with ideas, or it might be having a baby. The duty of a university is to see that neither of those decisions can keep someone from becoming the adult they could be.