First Person: No tattoos, please, and I'll skip the nose ring too

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The Independent Online
In 1971 Bob Farrer dropped out of college. For 25 years he was a journalist in newspapers, television and radio. Last year he returned to university as a mature student in Bradford. Here he reflects on his first semester.

Well ... the names of the drugs have certainly changed. I've read all about "E", but what in God's name are "Wiz" and "Skunk"? I suspect it's too late in life to start to find out. Anyway, with beer at pounds l a pint in the Steve Biko Bar - yes, the Steve Biko Bar - who needs illegal mood- altering substances?

It's after several pints of the above that I engage in my first philosophical (ie, inebriated) student argument for a quarter of a century - with a terrifyingly earnest young woman from the Socialist Workers' Party (still around after all this time, God bless 'em). During the course of this discussion, I pour scorn on Marx and all his doings, while she blinks at me owlishly through John Lennon-style granny spectacles as if she's never seen a middle-aged man drunk before. And who knows, maybe she hasn't.

Unemployment, mid-life crisis and a misspent youth (or, as in my case, all three) seem to translate to a growing number of older students in higher education. Consequently, fortysomethings like myself no longer stick out like sore thumbs.

There are, however, still moments of confusion. At the start of a tutorial tour of Bradford's industrial heritage, I am first mistaken by my own tutor for the city council's historic buildings officer. When the said council official turns up, he promptly mistakes me for the tutor. Somebody suggests I should be flattered by these misunderstandings and I have the good grace to agree, while silently wincing with embarrassment at the humiliation of being mistaken for a teacher and a local government dogsbody in the space of five minutes.

It occurs to me that a change of image might more clearly signal my rediscovered student status. Ear, nose, lip and God-knows-what-else rings, along with multiple tattoos, seem to be the distinguishing marks of today's undergraduate. However, further inquiries reveal that these are not the pain-free decorations some would have you believe, and I settle instead for a slightly shorter haircut than usual. Should that fail, my follow- up plan is to ditch my briefcase in favour of a backpack.

Evidence of the run-down fabric of our higher education system is not difficult to find. Monday's lectures take place on the sixth and seventh floors of a Sixties architectural monstrosity called the Richmond Building. Its lift system is inadequate and overcrowded to the point of being useless, and most people find it quicker to use the stairs. This has its disadvantages for the more mature student - not the least of which is a condition I believe athletes call "oxygen debt", which occurs around floor five.

I notice how helpful the younger undergraduates are to a disabled student in a wheelchair: assisting her on the stairs, making room in the lift for her, etc. I check out the price of wheelchairs, but even second-hand ones are prohibitively expensive, and I resign myself to the prospect of a triple heart bypass by the time I'm 50.

At the core of the first year of my course is a series of 2,000-word essays. These, I am told by fellow students, should prove a doddle for a journalist. I protest that I've written nothing longer than 250 words for about 15 years (except letters), but this cuts no ice.

Still, how difficult can it be? I park myself at the word processor and bash away like a fiend for four hours. The resultant number of words is obviously more than sufficient and will probably need editing down. I do a word count. There are about 800. I am less than half-way.

It occurs to me that this student lark may be more testing than I first thought. On the other hand, the apparent lackadaisical dawdle of academic life can be intensely irritating - particularly if you receive no grant and pay your own tuition fees. So, when lectures and tutorials begin late (the lecturer cannot find the door key, or he fell over on a pavement), finish early (for a fire drill) or don't take place at all for a fortnight ("reading weeks"), I moan loudly about value for money for my tuition fees. A fellow undergraduate dubs this new, consumerist me "the student from hell - a university's worst nightmare. Someone who expects to get what they've paid for".

Unfortunately, my principled annoyance begins to look slightly tarnished when the bank withholds payment of my fees standing order because of "insufficient funds". This, in fact, cheers me up immensely - financial crises of this nature are surely the hallmark of the student down the ages. I am beginning to feel that I belong.