Q: What did you get up to at university?

The best days of your life? Or just one big wasted opportunity? Too much time in the pub? Or endless hours in the library? Whether for good or bad, the years we spend at university are among our most formative. As thousands of A-level students wait nervously to discover where they'll be heading, those who have gone before them share their memories and relive their adventures
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The Independent Online


68, poet

Studied French and geography, at Hull, 1956-59

I chose Hull because it was up north and was the mirror image of Liverpool, and I liked the colours of the scarf. I contemplated Leeds, but didn't like their maroon and green colours, and went off the idea of Leicester when I realised it was in the Midlands.

A group of us from St Mary's College went to Hull and ring-fenced ourselves off from the others, sceptical of anyone who spoke with a southern accent, wore desert boots or drank wine. It took a while, but eventually we were all wearing desert boots and drinking wine.

I chose to study French and geography because I got the best marks in those subjects and the courses were there. Having been taught by a Catholic reverend, I spoke French with a peculiar Irish accent. If I had known what psychology or sociology were, I might have chosen one of those instead. I started writing poetry at Hull, where I discovered the works of Dylan Thomas, and Philip Larkin was a sub-warden in halls. He was the first poet I encountered, and was a considerable influence on me. My university education took place not only in the lecture halls - I was a late developer and felt comfortable at Hull. It was small enough to make me feel at ease, so I didn't feel lost.


44, artist

Fine art, Ravensbourne College, Kent, early 1980s

I didn't have to do much to get to art college. I had wanted to study art since secondary school, when it became clear how much I enjoyed it. I applied to Ravensbourne College, sent off a portfolio and was accepted on a three-year course. It was only when I went there and was occasionally a student representative in other people's interviews that I realised what a farce it was. The prettier the girl, the better the chance of a place. You could even say the earlier in the day the interview was scheduled, the less likely you were to get a place - because you'd be surrounded by a load of grumpy middle-aged men with hangovers. Art tutors were a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings.

The problem is that everybody who teaches at art school believes that it is impossible to teach art - but they're happy to collect their pay cheques. I think this is wrong. I would probably advise any school pupils today considering studying art at college to go abroad to avoid the ghost of the YBA, which still looms large. Did I get anything positive out of my three years at Ravensbourne? I suppose I avoided the dole queue for three years.


59, former politician

PPE, St Anne's College, Oxford, 1965-68

When I was at school, I set my heart on going to Cambridge - my uncle had been there in the 1930s and my boyfriend went there, too. In those days, you applied to both Oxford and Cambridge. I remember calling my mother from Oxford before going in to my interview and she told me I'd been offered places from two Cambridge colleges. I went into my interview anyway, and the principal asked if I would accept a place. When I said no, I was offered a scholarship. I had got my A-levels the previous year - two As, a B and a C - and spent three months working in a factory and six months in the US. When I finally started at Oxford in 1965, I was bewildered a lot of the time. I went up to read natural sciences and after two months I switched to PPE. The Swinging Sixties were just starting. The college doctor made a very controversial talk entitled "personal relationships" in which he said he would prescribe the pill to unmarried women. I was very interested in politics and it was a very exciting time politically. Jack Straw was President of the National Union of Students and it was all very left-wing, although I was always a Tory. My university experience gave me self-confidence. Getting a scholarship to Oxford meant I could look anybody in the eye. It also gave me the ability to spot an argument at 10 paces and to know when I was staring a fallacy in the face.


60, writer

French, Magdalen College, Oxford, 1964-68

I went to Oxford just before the time I believe it became fashionable to go to places like Sussex. At my school, going to Oxford was something that you aspired towards. My brother had won a scholarship there three years earlier and it was presumed that, if possible, I too would go to Oxford. I started studying French and Russian, then switched to philosophy and psychology before changing back to French. It was a little peripatetic. The picture I had in my head before starting was formed by novels I'd read. I imagined university would be more colourful, more glamorous, more intellectually dazzling than it actually was. It's never going to be quite as you imagine. I suppose like many sternly educated young men of my time, I may have been intellectually mature, but I was emotionally and socially immature. But I do still believe today that it's very important to have high-quality universities, preferably ones that are funded by the state.


37, musician

French, Goldsmiths College, London, 1988-90

My university experience was nicely coloured from day one - the first person I met was Graham Coxon, who became the guitarist in Blur. He was doing fine art, which seemed to involve putting telephones in washing-up bowls and drinking cider. Being at Goldsmiths at that time was pretty amazing - people like Damien Hirst were there and the people from Goldsmiths then are the people I see at the Groucho Club now. Of course, I spent most of my time at the bar, but studying French was actually very good indeed. Being an art college, Goldsmiths had a clique of cool people, but I found being around any type of expert amazing. I wanted to be in a band, but there was no course for that, so I chose my favourite subject, with a side order of sociology. Those guys were dazzling - they would get steaming drunk at the bar before leading lectures and speaking such fluent sociological rhetoric that I had trouble keeping up with them. In 1990, after two years, we got a record deal with the band and my tutor said to go for it and come back if it didn't work out. I would fucking love to go back to college, but life kind of got in the way. University is great, even if you only learn six new words; any knowledge is handy!


30, comedienne

Manchester, 1994-97

I went to Manchester but sometimes I lie and tell people I went to Cambridge, just to impress them. I had wanted to go to drama school but my parents, who are Asian, said that they wanted me to go to university and become a doctor, because there aren't enough Asian doctors in Britain. I had practically never left the house at that stage - I'd never even been allowed to stay over at people's houses so I saw university as my passport out. I received an offer of two Es from Bangor in Wales but couldn't find it on the map so made Manchester my first choice, which gave me a CCD offer to study biochemistry.

At the time there were lots of bands playing in Manchester, there was the Hacienda and there were loads of students. I absolutely loved it. I went out every single night and had a great time. I could not tell you the first thing about biochemistry today - I've never even included it in any of my sketches. But what university did teach me was to use my brain, to be disciplined and focused and to be independent.


25, lead singer of 747s

English literature and theatre, Trinity College, Dublin, 1997-2001

Trinity College was a creative hub. It was where I first saw Ned, our bassist, sitting in the corner of the jazz society with his bright green hair. We met properly buying tickets to see Morrissey and set up a theatre company and would put on gigs after the shows. We felt we didn't really belong at the jazz society and ended up leaving it, to busk on the streets of Dublin. I wrote a spoof column for the university paper, in which I recounted the week's gossip, called "I from the Campanile", named after a tower in the middle of campus. Legend had it if you walked under the bell at noon you would fail your exams. The man who I imagined to live there saw all and told all. Studying English literature and theatre, I used to sneak Ned, who was studying French, into the Italian films we watched as part of my course. Eventually I smuggled the whole band into the viewings, and that's where we got the inspiration for the name of our album, La Zampano.


53, chair of Endemol

Law, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, 1973-76

University today is a bit like a lottery and Oxbridge is less important than they used to be. When I took my A-level mocks at Dulwich College, I got two Es and a failure. That was in March - and I had until June to get off my arse and do some work. I eventually got three As. The term after my results came out, I applied to go to Oxford - because that's what people expected Dulwich College students to do. I failed to get in because I was defeated by one question in particular. I was being interviewed by seven men dressed as vicars and a man in the middle said: "Do you think the pauses between the lines are more important than the lines in Pinter?" I suppose I should have said you can't have the pauses without the lines - but I didn't think of it at the time. So I went to teach Latin at a prep school for two years and applied successfully to go to Cambridge to read law.

Teaching was a steep learning curve. One pupil burnt my classroom down. I knew what to expect from Cambridge as my brother had already been there and it lived up to my expectations. I had such a good time I got a third. University gave me the opportunity to try out different things - like journalism and politics. You also meet a whole group of like-minded peers who go with you through life.


45, designer

Geography and town planning, University College London, 1979-82

I went to university not to get a degree but to move to London. I don't remember ever doing any work. I chose UCL because it offered me a easy entry and I was on a full grant so I was paid £90 a week.

London was the place to be for music, youth culture and fashion. I came from a small town up north and had only been to London a few times before, as a punk walking down the King's Road. In the first year, I was heavily involved in playing in a band and organising club nights. We put on Diverse at the Barracuda Club and lots of big names performed, like Eurythmics and Level 42. We were taking about two grand a week at one point. My friends used to tape lectures for me because I was never there.

In my second year, Geraldine, now my wife, and I sold our clothes at Camden Market every Saturday and Sunday. We carried on after I left college and that was what became our business, Red or Dead. While I was at uni I never thought I'd end up being a designer. Going to university was a big chance for me to get out and move to London. It was fantastic. The experience made me who I am today.


44, novelist

English, New College, Oxford, 1981-84

I remember my time at university incredibly fondly. For as long as I could remember, I had always wanted to go to Oxford, although I don't know why. The first time I went was for my interview in December 1980. So I had built my desire to go there out of pictures I had seen and some sort of mental image I had formed. Often these things don't live up to expectations, but Oxford was absolutely everything I had hoped for.

It was satisfying just being in a very old place. New College, despite its name, is incredibly old. It was also pretty big - which meant that it was less cliquey than some of the smaller colleges. I'd never lived away from home before. It was an incredibly different environment than I had come from. It was an extraordinary thing, this independence.

New College had only just started taking women when I arrived. We were this new breed, and, to make us feel at home, the college did this hilarious thing - they put full-length mirrors on some of the staircases. That was the sum total of their preparation for the arrival of women. I suppose, if you'd come from boarding school, it wasn't so very different, but for me, as someone who had come from a 1,700-pupil state school, it was something of a culture shock.

I don't think university changed me. There were people who had come from quieter backgrounds than my own who went completely bonkers the minute they arrived. I remember one girl who I had seen at interview, who was the nicest, smartest, quietest-looking girl there. She went away to India and turned into a full-blown hippy. But I changed more between school and university than I did while I was at university. I have friends from before my time at Oxford whom I have kept up with, including my husband, so I can't have changed that much.


37, director of Liberty

Law, London School of Economics, 1989-92

My three years studying law at the LSE were absolutely fantastic. It sounds a bit boring because I was living in London and chose a university in London, but I did move out of home. My parents were very understanding about that. I moved to a bedsit in Golders Green and for the first term ate nothing but porridge as my grant was miscalculated so I was totally broke. When they spotted the mistake and the rebate came through, it was much better. I joined the film club and just enjoyed hanging out with people studying all sorts of subjects from different parts of the world. I spent a lot of time at the National Film Theatre when I should have been in lectures. I also met a lot of very confident posh kids. It was great to be with people who were interesting and a bit political.

My time at LSE has had a huge amount of influence professionally, and not just for the little bit of paper: the confidence it gave me and the exposure to people from all walks of life. I feel a huge fondness for LSE as an academic institution and was touched when, more recently, they asked me to be a governor. I think my time there made me a non-lawyer's lawyer. It made me see law as a social science and that has been really relevant to my career choices.


35, editor, Heat magazine

Cultural studies, University of East London, 1988-90

I only did a year of my actual course, because after a year I stood for the post of editor of the college magazine. And, after I'd taken a year off to edit the mag, I got a job at Smash Hits and that was that - I never went back. I was incredibly, ridiculously lucky to get it. But I was a nervous type in those days, even when I got that first job. I kept telling the university, or polytechnic as it was then, I would be back after a year.

I absolutely loved college while I was there. I'm from Sheffield originally and I was quite a shy young boy. I hadn't actually been out of Sheffield much before. Suddenly, I was thrown into London life. Also, because I had messed up my A-levels and had failed to get into Bradford, I only got into East London at the last minute. There were no college digs left by the time I got down there, so I lived out in a flat.

But at least there was the safety net of the college environment, which was incredibly helpful. Some of the friends I met then have turned into my greatest friends now. I have far more college friends than media friends. That's how much of an effect it had on me.


38, founder of Coffee Republic

Bristol, 1986-89

I remember wanting desperately to go to Oxford and so I sat the Oxbridge exams and passed - but failed at the interview stage. I was extremely upset because going to Oxford had always been my dream. But I decided to visit an open day at Bristol, which was my second choice. I remember sitting in on a class and knowing instantly that this was it, this was the place that would make me happy. I received a conditional offer of two Bs and a C and when the results came out I was on holiday in St Tropez with my family. I remember the anxiety, the fear, the dread, before getting my results. The date 18 August will always stay in my mind. In those days, they always sent results out by post so I had to get dad to call the builders in our house in London, who read out the results to me - I got the grades and made it to Bristol. I had been quite a swot at school so I was looking forward to having an amazing life experience away from London and my girls' school - and that's what happened. University life is like a wonderful microcosm of society. I had three gorgeous years there.


37, chef at The Connaught

History, Cambridge Polytechnic, 1988-91

I'd already spent a year au pairing in Italy before moving to Cambridge to start my modern history degree. The great thing about where I studied is that there were no halls of residence so we all lived in the real world, in shared houses. There are always a lot of students in Cambridge - from school, the college, the university - so you get to meet all sorts of people from all over the place. It was great fun. It probably made me more conversant with different types of people. There was one guy in my class whose dad was the ambassador at the embassy in Pakistan. And it was a good time to be there studying history - the Berlin Wall came down when we were learning about the rise of Gorbachev and the unification of Germany. We got to see history in motion. I became a lot more aware of world events while I was there.

Even as a student, good food was very important to me. I couldn't stomach all that bad spaghetti Bolognese. A book by Marcella Hazan was my student cooking bible and my mother would send me food hampers. And I had fresh parmesan and dried porcini mushrooms in the fridge at all times. This may have been why I was permanently broke.


41, Radio 1 DJ,

Journalism, Harlow College, 1984-85

I didn't want to go to university because I was writing my fanzine at the time and I decided it wouldn't look very punk rock to have the address as a halls of residence somewhere. I decided to study journalism at Harlow College for a year instead - it was only 40 minutes on the train from London so I could get there easily for gigs. Everyone on my course was housed in digs, and I found myself moving from a quiet village in north-east Essex to a council flat in Harlow.

About 95 per cent of my mates had gone off to university and were having an amazing time, living away from home. My experiences were a bit different. I lived with a great couple - he worked for the gas board, she had five kids who had left home, and every evening dinner was on the table at 5pm. The only time they were a bit miffed was when she was watching Coronation Street and I was upstairs stapling together 2,000 copies of the fanzine. It was quite an eye-opening experience.

I still went out and did a lot of gigging. I also remember revising for my law exam on the Tube going to a gig at the Fulham Greyhound. It was a brilliant experience. It was like standing on an air lock ready to be vaulted into space - into the real world. I came away with an appreciation of the different ways people lead their lives - and two Bob Dylan albums. I'd hated Bob Dylan until then.


58, author

English Literature and History, University of Kent, 1969-72

The University of Kent was only three years old when I went there in 1969. I suppose doing English and history I became a Jack of all trades and master of none, but I couldn't bear to give up either subject. In my day we were made to study logic, studies of the city, realism in literature and a language, for which I am eternally grateful. At the time I would have been happy to keep my head stuck in a history book, but they dragged us kicking and screaming into our own.

There was an uneasy relationship between town and gown, as the gleaming modern building emerged at the top of the hill, in opposition with the old cathedral. There was an element of shock of the new, I suppose. Back then there was a lot of funding available for the courses and things functioned really well. We had free breakfasts, though we could never afford to eat out or indulge in too much partying, as I had to live on £3 per week.

The friendships I forged there have continued to this day - a few of us live in close proximity and are firm friends. University offers fantastic experiences, though I think we need to bring back apprenticeship systems, like those in Germany; they seem to have the ideal synthesis. The number of school leavers going into higher education is really overloading the system.

Interviews by Danielle Demetriou, Charlotte Philby and Ed Caesar