The hottest day of the year so far was not the day I would have chosen to attend a black-tie event. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
2019 has been a year of reunions. In March, I attended a school reunion to mark 30 years since leaving. And, of course, it’s also 30 years since I started university.
In October 1989, I went up to Oxford as an 18-year-old first-year undergraduate. This October, my 18-year-old goddaughter is heading there to start her degree too.
We’ve come full circle. Good God, I’m so old.
A lifetime and no time at all
So anyway, last weekend I returned for a college gaudy – Oxford-speak for ‘reunion dinner’ – to meet up with several friends from my uni days. Some we still see regularly; others not for ten years or more.
30 years is simultaneously a lifetime – well, a generation at least – but also no time at all.
Sure, waistlines have expanded and hairlines receded, but it did also feel like we had never left. Friendships forged in the cauldron of newly found independence and young adulthood have a way of enduring through the years.
Some things hadn’t changed at all. Most of the college buildings have barely changed in 30 years. (In fairness, many of them are at least ten times as old, so three decades is the blink of an eye.) The food is still less cordon bleu and more Corden, James.
And yet other things are barely recognisable. Looking back on my student days versus today, it is like comparing two different millennia. (Which, strictly, it is. I finished university in 1992.)
Then and now
When I was an undergrad, if you wanted to leave messages for people you either pinned a hand-written note to their door or you sent them a message via ‘pigeon post’, a system where doddery old gentlemen on bikes ferried the paper-based missives of the day backwards and forwards between colleges, to be sorted into pigeon-holes in the porter’s lodge.
Today’s undergrads send each other WhatsApp messages and think that email is old-fashioned.
When I left university, we still didn’t have email. If you were lucky, there would be a computer somewhere in a college or department that had access to this wondrous new thing called the internet. We didn’t even have AltaVista then (anyone remember AltaVista?), which bears about as much resemblance to Google as a 1960s room-sized supercomputer does to a smartphone.
We had two public payphones between 200-odd students in college. (If you wanted to use one on a Sunday evening, you would have to queue patiently.) No one had their own TV; there were two in common rooms in the college – where we all gathered to watch Countdown and Neighbours – and that was it. Toilets and bathrooms were typically shared between half a dozen or more rooms. And lecturers used chalkboards or, at best, overhead projectors with acetate slides, while we took notes with A4 pads.
Wi-fi was a misspelled stereo system. We didn’t have to pay our own tuition fees. And you certainly couldn’t buy five varieties of wine in the college bar. (You’d go to Oddbins and pick up a bottle of Bulgarian riesling for £1.99.)
Mod cons versus the burden of debt
They were altogether simpler, more innocent times. Yes, today’s students enjoy all the modern conveniences of 21st-century living. But they also face the future pressures of needing to succeed in a competitive, rapidly changing workplace so they can pay off debts which can be as large as the GDP of a small country.
Okay, I exaggerate – but only a bit. The average graduate debt at the end of a three-year degree is £50,000. Given that a graduate’s average starting salary in their first job is estimated at £19,000-£22,000, that’s around 2½ years’ wages owing straight off the bat.
When I left uni in 1992, my total debt was £2,000, which is equivalent to £4,100 in current terms – less than a tenth of what the typical graduate now faces. That’s not fun.
So us old fogeys come together at events like this and put on our rose-tinted glasses. We chuckle about how our lives back then might seem barbaric to today’s students but that they really were the ‘good old days’. And we genuinely mean it. I look at the new generation of undergrads such as my goddaughter and I pity the financial hole they are digging for themselves. In the good old days, life was simpler but we also had fun without feeling like we were carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders.
Would I rather have been a student in 1989 or 2019? Give me the good old days of 1989 in a heartbeat.