What’s the point of university?

Our contributors reflect on the years that didn't make them

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June 1, 2021

The first memory I have is of reading; I’m a toddler, sitting on my mother’s lap, reading the letters C-A-T and feeling that the world, not just the word, has suddenly been illuminated. Years later, when I became a total bitch and my father would come home from work to find my mother in tears because of my taunting, he’d shout: “Your mother taught you to read!He knew how much it meant to me; it was like saying: “Your mother gave you life.”

Knowing that my mother wanted me to be popular, I would shun my classmates when they came to call, instead going to the local library first thing on a Saturday morning and returning home with an armful of books which I would sit and read like a machine. Even as a teenager, I used books as deadly weapons long before I learnt how to use words as them; lying in the park reading Lolita in my school uniform the summer I turned 14, I regarded the dirty old men who tried to chat me up with a newly informed contempt. It was me and books against the world.

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I mention this because an early love of reading is supposed to lead to a desire for education. But I never once wanted to go to university, and I wonder if this came about because of my early relationship with reading, which was so intense that I resented my parents, my friends, the dog and, more than anything, school — which robbed me of so much precious reading time. Though I knew that, in theory, furthering my education would lead to more, not less, reading, I was offended by the idea that I would be told what to read; to my childish mind it seemed to sully the purity of my love, like an arranged marriage of minds.

I’m 61 now, with the time and resources to become a mature student (or an immature student in my case) if I should choose. But my enmity towards education has, if anything, grown to become almost visceral. There are quite a few words which make me seethe — gusset, feisty, ‘Enjoy!’ — but none are worse than “uni”. Every time I hear it I think of entitled nobodies wasting three years of their lives, believing that they’ll swan out and nab a dream job, with no feeling of urgency that they need to get out there and get started right now.

According to a recent YouGov poll, 60% of Britons would choose to be writers — the highest approval rating of all. For a working-class girl in 1970s England, becoming a writer was only marginally more likely than becoming Queen. Why would I want to sit in a classroom until my mid-twenties when I could be out earning a living and following my dream? On the other hand, I wasn’t keen to follow my parents on to the factory floor, even though I quite enjoyed the poetry of Aleksei Gastev, who wrote thrillingly of industrialisation in post-revolutionary Russia. (Yes, I was insufferable.)

Playing for time, I told mater and pater that I was planning to go to teacher-training college — the only respectable way for a working-class girl to get a further education without being waylaid by long-haired layabouts in search of Free Love — returning to school in petulant mode to do my A Levels. That was the theory. Within six weeks I was in London, snorting speed through twenty-pound notes with pop stars after being rewarded with the role of punk correspondent by the New Musical Express. I hated the music (“It’s just a racket!” as my mother used to say about my adored Glam Rock) but it was my big chance to be a writer and I wasn’t expecting another to come along any time soon.

Punks hated students, even though many of them had been in some sort of further education; John Lydon met Sid Vicious when they were teenagers at Hackney Technical College. A reader sent in a badge saying “I HATE STUDENTS, YEAH!”. I wore it everywhere. I still believe teenage pop stars should be the norm — not a bunch of privately educated namby-pambies getting together in a punt and thinking it might be fun to be in a band.

There’s something exciting about the fact that the teenage Beatles (George still too young to legally drink) learnt their trade playing all-nighters in the dives of Hamburg, impatient to get out there and own the world rather than sitting around watching daytime TV for three years. Yet the Beatles were succeeded by the rise of public-school prog rock, made by and beloved of students, and we punky ankle-biters felt a particular satisfaction in giving this cultural blip a good kicking. Or rather, we assumed it was a blip; such a high proportion of chart acts are now so privately and lengthily educated that Cerys Matthews no longer plays records by “over-privileged” artists such as Coldplay and Florence Welch on her radio show.

Do bright working-class kids really want the “privilege” of being stuck in a classroom for an extra three years, though? Obviously we don’t want our doctors to go straight from school to scalpel, but if you’re not training for something practical, university looks like an increasingly pointless rite of passage. After all, the vast majority of Gen Z malcontents moaning about not being able to get on the property ladder are degree-holders who will forever rue the day they first heard of Media Studies — unlike the kid who leaves school to become a plumber’s apprentice and may well be on the property ladder in both Britain and Spain by the time he’s 30. (A few years ago, the Mail on Sunday featured a 34-year-old plumber who earns £210,000 a year, owns a flat in Kensington and takes holidays in the Maldives, having been brought up on a council estate by a shelf-stacker mum.)

The relationship between the working class and education will always be bittersweet. There was a lovely scene in TOWIE recently where Chloe Sims, the glamour-puss Mother Courage of the crew who has spent her life living by her looks, welcomes her younger sister, who has just graduated, to the show: “College girl…” she says, with both pride and bemusement. Reality TV and the social influencer racket has very much become a kind of further education for bright, attractive, non-academic youngsters, the toffs of Made In Chelsea as much as the Essex spivs.

Yet there was something of a scandal when there were 85,000 applicants for the 2019 season of Love Island — more than twice the number of applicants to Oxford and Cambridge. That I was learning my trade when I was too young to vote — and am still practising it more than forty years on when most of my over-educated contemporaries who saw me as a performing monkey left the pitch long ago — makes me very happy indeed.

“Libraries gave us power,” sang the Manics — but too much institutionalised book-learning can eradicate original thinking, making us indistinguishable from the bourgeoise, which is a far worse fate than growing up to be like our poor but honest parents. I was offended the first time someone called me an autodidact, but having looked it up in one of them there dictionaries, I can’t think of a better thing to be.

I wouldn’t have fancied further education at any time, not even when it was free, in both senses of the word. But now student debt means starting adult life with a deficit — even though you may well be paying for the pleasure of attending an institution where students are suspended for stating that women have vaginas and dons are warned that raising an eyebrow may be a “micro-aggression”. Because, of course, the whole wretched Woke lark started in our hallowed groves of academe, where students are taught to believe that, contrary to the Latin root of the word, “education” is not “to lead out” but rather to shut in, the approved manner of learning being no longer listening and debating but putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and shrieking about safe spaces.

As graduation season begins and a new tranche of starry-eyed students discover that their dream job is not waiting to greet them at the other end, once more I thank my lucky stars that I escaped the constraints of my background — and of too much education.