Heather Walmsley: Why are students treated like scum?

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The Independent Online

After five years of full-time work, the prospect of returning to university was tantalising. The initial joys of a regular salary had dulled. The dawn commute, office politics and incessant deadlines were a grind. I lamented the long days of undergraduate freedom that I had wasted.

After five years of full-time work, the prospect of returning to university was tantalising. The initial joys of a regular salary had dulled. The dawn commute, office politics and incessant deadlines were a grind. I lamented the long days of undergraduate freedom that I had wasted.

So when I won funding for postgraduate study last September, I was delighted. Intriguing research, the freedom to work where I pleased, the time to pluck writing projects from the back burner, opportunities to travel, another qualification: they were my future. What could I lose?

As a journalist, I wouldn't miss working. I could freelance. I had one worry, and that was cash. Could I downshift my diet - forfeit the olives and rocket salad, and consume pasta and pesto with gusto again? Could I live on the Economic and Social Research Council's slim offering of £9,000?

The initial student days rolled along in a euphoric blur. I still woke at 6.30am, but instead of racing out of the door, freezing my toes in the wait for delayed trains and arriving at the office in a grimy mood, I enjoyed a leisurely cuppa and breakfast TV.

Work began at 8am. I read books and papers. I sang along to my favourite CDs. When I got bored, I nipped out for a run or rustled up a healthy lunch. My partner returned in the evening to a bundle of sweetness and light - a different creature from the narky cow he used to welcome home at 8pm.

Initial irritation at observing academics swan airily between coffee shops and bars was tempered by the slow realisation that I could do the same. It was strange sitting humbly in seminars. It was even weirder trying to act self-consciously clever like my fellow students, but I compensated by splurging on a few good books.

Then I had a bad day. It began with the hour crouched on a dusty floor outside a professor's office. There was no sign of life. His door was locked. His mobile redirected to an answering service. No one remembered seeing him for five days. The man had patently forgotten our meeting.

I wasn't alone. An undergraduate and a postdoctoral researcher were lingering too. They had each arranged to meet him, in private, at 10am - the same time as me.

That afternoon I tried to book a guest room in a campus hall of residence. I waited for 20 minutes to be rudely dismissed by a porter who regarded his tea break as far more important than any student's needs.

"I'm not a student!" I wanted to exclaim. "I'm a 30-year-old professional. How dare you treat me like scum?" Then I remembered. I was, actually, according to all possible definitions, just a student.

More frustrations followed. Open-ended essay questions were set, but for many lecturers there was only one "right answer". Reading lists circulated, recommending unwieldy and badly written books. Were we seriously expected to sift through hundreds of indulgent paragraphs and thousands of ungainly sentences in search of one simple idea? I needed a wheelbarrow just to lift the damn things.

I'm not knocking academia. Honest. Universities offer a rare environment, in which earnest, hard-working stalwarts still value scholarship more than profit. To be paid to learn is a privilege. To wake up in the morning and wonder which books to devote the day to is bliss.

In academia, age doesn't matter. I've met more mothers and pensioners studying for doctorates than youngsters of 21. So - if you're patient and forgiving and reasonably intelligent - a postgraduate degree could well provide the stimulating and productive career break you're after.

An MBA might triple your earning power. An MA in medieval history could double as research for a novel. There are plenty of scholarships available, even to mature students in arts and social science subjects - from sources such as the ESRC, Arts and Humanities Research Board, and Wellcome and Leverhulme Trusts. If you're after a professional qualification, many companies (and the civil service) will stump up the fees. If you're a teacher, a masters degree will notch up a point on the pay scale.

Just be aware that the perks of postgraduate life have hidden pitfalls. Living on £9,000 is not easy (and nor is learning to be unprofessional, unreliable and unaccountable again). Squeezing advice from over-worked academics is an art. Discriminating between experts and those who treat "research" as an excuse for inertia is a skill worthy of a degree itself. Untangling deliberately convoluted sentences to pick out one simple idea requires stamina.

Mid-career professionals heading for the campus - be prepared for a culture shock.

education@independent.co.uk

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