Thirty years on: Steve McCormack returns to his Alma Mater

Three decades after making the journey north to take his degree, Steve McCormack returns to Liverpool - and finds students working part-time, spending freely and being taught by Russian lecturers
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The Independent Online

Thirty years ago this autumn, I started my second year at Liverpool University, in the days of Old Labour, the Stranglers, duffel coats and desert boots.

Now, as my generation's children fill the lecture halls, I'm curious to see just how much has changed. So I decide to go back and, as far as possible, for 24 hours, to recreate the life I led in 1976.

I'm billeted in my old hall of residence, across the road from Penny Lane. Little has changed. There's some new furniture and an internet connection in the wall, but the built-in, chipboard cupboards, the disinfectant smell, and the communal loo and shower in the corridor live on. Warnings about meningitis symptoms, and fines for watching personal televisions without a licence catch my eye, as does the disappearance of payphone booths and the newspaper room. The car park, protected now by heavy steel gates, contains glistening Fabias and Polos, replacing dented Anglias and patched-up Morris Minors.

Before turning in, I make my way to a local pub to meet second-year maths and language student, Melissa Phair, 19, from Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. I remember it clearly as one of the first places I tasted new northern beers and heard the scouse accent, so strange to my Sussex ears.

But I discover this local flavour has gone, swept aside by the sheer numbers of students now swelling this city (90,000 at five separate higher-education institutions) and the homogenisation of young, pub culture. Here, it's students only, both sides of the bar, consuming the same heritage-lite range of beers and alcopops found in all their home towns.

On airing these thoughts to Melissa and her friends, I learn that their social activity revolves around the student-night culture, where pubs across the city tailor their premises, prices, stock and events to fit the generic student taste. The phenomenon was around in the 1970s, of course, but to nothing approaching this degree.

The mix of people I'm surrounded by, though, reassures. The eight second-years, now sharing a couple of cramped houses near the pub, met in halls last year, come from all over the country and are studying a mix of subjects. Their rent is around £55 a head a week, (mine was £4) and most club together to get the internet installed in their digs. "We couldn't do without it," says law student Lisa Buckingham, from Rugby, who has to read five journals a week, with only two hard copies available in the faculty.

The background financial picture shows stark differences have set in with the passage of time. Now, they're calmly accumulating debt which might be re-paid within a decade, while we eked out a grant over a term or year. Blank looks greet my question on current budgeting limits, only one out of eight offering even a vague weekly figure.

"I'm past caring," says Melissa. "I don't think about it any more." Similar comments reveal lives of steady consumption, with no eye trained on exact outgoings. They know no one's asking for the money back in the near future, so why bother now if the eventual debts are a few hundred, or thousand, pounds either way?

Surprisingly, though, around half of those gathered have part-time jobs during term time, an almost unheard-of phenomenon in my day. Melissa works at a cocktail bar in town most weekends, others in pubs and restaurants. The reasons given vary ("I've got to eat." "I didn't save enough in the holidays."), and partially contradict the overall easy-come, easy-go attitude to money. But part-time work during term is now considered normal, which the romantic in me finds a sad intrusion on what should be a time of undiluted intellectual and social adventure.

The following morning, watching students amble towards lectures on a campus undergoing large-scale investment, in new buildings for academic, sporting and social purposes, I search for more anthropological change. Overall appearance suggests that fewer students now mark the shift from school to university by adopting a new image. In my day, Karl Marx beards and Alice Cooper hair abounded, and choice of clothes often conspicuously celebrated the absence of the diktats of school uniform. Now the extremes have melted away. As has the lugubrious bloke selling the Socialist Worker outside the Arts Library. He didn't manage to persuade many of us to join the class struggle anyway.

I meet Melissa for Spanish in a lecture theatre fundamentally unchanged. She's clutching her homework: a translation that had taken her a couple of hours to do. It looks similar to my German tasks of old.

The lecturer hands round a text, written in Spanish by the author of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, about the place of The Beatles in cultural history.

The ensuing discussion reveals a wide range of fluency in the room: from the impressively nimble and confident to the haltingly insecure. One girl behind me whispers that she "just can't speak Spanish", reminding me of a comment the night before from another second-year, who said work had now become harder because they had to "read books in Spanish!"

A grammar exercise later underlines the spread of ability. The first three answers, to an either/or question of tenses, are all wrong.

Afterwards the lecturer tells me the average ability of students has declined slightly during his 14 years at the university. First, he says, this is due to the increased intake: 15 undergraduates doing Spanish in 1992 has become 70 now. Second, he's aware that both at schools and universities, the importance of grammatical correctness has declined gradually over recent decades.

At the same time, he's observed a greater degree of concern, even panic, among students faced with taking career decisions.

Last night, Lucy Skipp, doing history, told me she thought the pressure came partly from lecturers. "They're saying to us: 'If you don't do all this extra-curricular stuff, you won't get jobs. You need to enhance your CVs.' That's so daunting for us."

On our way to maths, Melissa and I pass three juggernauts and see sweaty roadies humping equipment into the union for tonight's concert. "It's the Goo Goo Dolls," she informs me. I'm none the wiser. "In my day it was Wishbone Ash and Eddie and the Hot Rods," I enthuse. She smiles back in a caring way.

Sitting in on a maths lecture really does take me back. At the front, chalk dances across a blackboard rapidly filling with numbers, arrows and tables and the students take notes on A4 pads. This could be 1976. The lecturer is Russian, his tinder-dry sense of humour complementing the accent and precise explanations. He embodies an appointments revolution in Liverpool's maths department. Of around 40 full-time teaching staff, there are now 15 from overseas, predominantly the former Soviet Union. In my day, there was just one foreigner in the whole department.

My former lecturer, Professor Peter Giblin, a past head of the department, tells me they employ so many Russians because they're "so damn good". It is now more difficult, he says, than in his day, for a British-educated maths graduate with a PhD to get a full-time lectureship at a Russell Group university because of this competition from abroad.

But Giblin is far from apologetic about the lo-tech way of teaching at the university. Questionnaires that are handed out to students, he tells me, repeatedly reveal satisfaction.

"What they want is a clear explanation, developing slowly in front of their eyes," he reports. "The only problem for us is getting good chalk."

In other corners of this campus, the role of IT is prominent. What in my day were mere libraries now house computer suites with far heavier usage than the adjoining reading rooms. A recent exam-time experiment of 24-hour opening of these suites was so successful that now both main libraries are open all day and night five days a week.

Elsewhere, new teaching methods are rampant. Chris McCoy, a second-year medicine student, tells me of his shock last year on encountering what's called problem-based learning, where formal lectures are rare, and students, working in groups, are encouraged to learn by their own research and investigation.

Other departments, including engineering and veterinary science, also use the method.

"I didn't like it at first," says Chris, from Bolton, now in his second year, "and might not have come to Liverpool if I'd known about it." However, he says he's getting used to it and seeing its strengths.

Melissa is sceptical. "I wouldn't like to teach myself," she says, as she heads away from the university's famous redbrick Victoria Building towards the union where she'll soon be getting down to the Goo Goo Dolls.