Once upon a time in a land far away, going to a British university was free and so everyone fancied a shot at it. But because everyone fancied a shot, and because successive governments wanted to expand the university sector to seem more egalitarian, lots more people did go to university. And then universities couldn’t cope, and asked for help, which is why Tony Blair introduced tuition fees which, over the coming years, will likely rise rather than fall.
That is a very potted history of what’s happened to universities in Britain in the past 50 years or so. And the point about it is that tuition fees very fundamentally changed the contract between you, the student, and your university, which has gone from being simply an arm of society to being the provider of a service. And because you guys are now not just students, but customers who are incurring an additional cost, you have to think very hard about whether or not university is worth not just your time, but your money too. Or maybe your parents have to think about that. Somebody does.
My view is that – done properly – university is one of the greatest privileges and pleasures this life will give us, and I hope that you make the most of it. It’s time that you won’t get back, but will probably pine for and be nostalgic about. But there are good and bad reasons to go to university, and before explaining why I think you guys are very lucky, and why I’m very jealous and wish I was heading to university this September too, I think I had better explain some of the bad reasons to go to university.
Don’t go to university just because your mates are going. Don’t go to university because you can’t think of anything better to do. Don’t go to university because you think it’s the safest place to lose your virginity, experiment with Class-A drugs, or do a pub crawl. Don’t, in other words, go to university because you’re a waster or want to be one.
You should go to university because you love life and learning. The three – maybe four, even more – years you are about to spend in education will almost certainly be deeply formative, for your career, and more importantly for your character. A lot of the clichés are true: you probably will meet some of the friends who will be your closest pals throughout the rest of your life; you probably will have at least some fun, and maybe a hell of a lot; and you really will discover a lot more about who you are, for good and for bad.
All those things are worthwhile. Many of them are the stuff dreams are made of. Almost all of my closest friends are people I spent three years running around with in Cambridge. My wife was someone I met there; and the place meant so much to us that two years ago we got engaged there, and last year were married there. So my three years were about as formative as you’re likely to get.
But the learning aspect of it matters hugely too. Whichever university you end up at, it is one of the great achievements of our species to design institutions where young people can spend several years learning at the feet of wiser souls who have spent their lives, however long, immersed in a subject. Knowledge is nearly the most precious commodity ever invented, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll spend the next few years soaking up as much of it as possible. Youth really is wasted on the young, and that’s something you only grasp when you get older and realise how lucky you were to have access to such great teachers for so long.
You guys are about to embark on a thrilling adventure. What you make of it is almost entirely down to you. With a bit of luck, you’ll learn huge amounts, make bonds of love that sustain you forever, and have a blast. I wish, frankly, that I was joining you. Good luck – and don’t forget the Alka-Seltzer.