Like many people, I more or less sleepwalked from school into university without, it now seems to me, enough awareness of the possibilities, and not getting everything I could out of the university experience. For a start, I just read the subject I’d enjoyed most at A-level. I was too young and probably too shy to get the most out of Oxford’s incredible resources. I left with a very good degree, but with not much more of a sense of what I wanted to do with my life than five years earlier. As it turns out, my university education has contributed to my life mostly by chance, in unforeseen ways.
If I were to go to university now, I’d know much better what to do with it. I’d probably want to do a completely different subject – if I had the time and money, I’d love to do a degree in Bengali. I’d have no compunction in writing to individual academics asking if I could come and talk to them about an aspect of the subject. I certainly wouldn’t waste time and pretend that I had a cold when I just hadn’t done this week’s essay. And I would know what I wanted to get out of it, and I would know how to use what I learnt – at least I hope so.
When David Willetts said this week that more people over 60 should consider returning, or going for the first time, to university, his suggestion met with some resistance. There are only 2,000 over-60s currently studying at university. Mr Willetts suggested that successful, useful employees would always want to keep up with developing knowledge and skills, and that “higher education has an economic benefit in that if you stay up to date with knowledge and skills you are more employable”.
Higher education should, however, not just be for producing more skilled and flexible workers. Mature students enter higher education for any number of reasons, including curiosity, the fulfilment of a long-held dream, as well as a wish to keep in touch with the life of the mind.
There is no reason whatsoever why people who did not go to university promptly at 18 should be barred from learning for the rest of their lives; why people who have done it once should not feel that they want to go back, to do it properly. I teach creative writing at the University of Bath Spa, and the life experience, keenness and range of reading that older students can bring to the seminar table is at the heart of what we try to achieve. If Mr Willetts were to broaden his notion of why people may legitimately want to re-enter higher education, his ideas would be very welcome.
It might be that a spread in age and variety of background of entering students could address some of the decline in the numbers of traditional students, following the introduction of the £9,000-a-year tuition fees. Mature students, after all, have come to a view about the value of a degree which may well be informed by intimate acquaintance with the world of work. A report last year by the National Union of Students and the think-tank Million+, however, worried that after 2013 the subsidy for mature students doing access courses and A-levels and other qualifications was going to disappear. That, coupled with the £9,000 annual fee for undergraduate courses, might very well discourage the very people whose experience might have supported and enriched our university cultures. At the first effect of the increased tuition fees, the numbers of mature students applying had fallen by almost twice the number of traditional under-21s.
Perhaps government rhetoric that limits the effect of higher education to salary enhancement and career development plays a part in that apparent, and perhaps only initial, decline. After all, the point of taking a three-year degree over the age of 60 in order to boost your career is obviously going to have a limited appeal. Doing a degree in creative writing, or Bengali, or geology, or political history just because you always wanted to, on the other hand, is not going to lose its appeal just because one is now 50, or 60, or 70. Such students in the end may be the saviours of a beleaguered higher education sector.
Are you out there, Henrietta Fazackerley?
The website Ancestry.co.uk has claimed that a number of surnames which used to be quite ordinary are on the verge of dying out. It’s surprising how surnames take on a period air, and then become attenuated and finally disappear. In the 1940s, it sometimes seems, everyone was called Fazackerley. What happened to those children? I can see how Christian names go out of fashion, but the mechanism behind the disappearance of surnames is a mysterious one.
Some of the surnames they suggest as on the way out, however, seem perfectly normal, including Clegg – Nick Clegg, with his three sons, is doing his bit for that one. Are Kershaw, Cohen, and Sutcliffe really dying out? (Someone slap a preservation order on my colleague Tom.) There are only 50 people called Bonneville in Britain. Chips, Rummage, Nithercott, Hatman and Southwark have, it is claimed, now entirely died out. Actually, I don’t suppose there are that many people called Hensher, either.
The unique or unusual surname, however, is useful these days in ways that never existed before. If you Google “David Cohen”, say, for a supposedly moribund surname you get a remarkable number of diverse results, including a Canadian lawyer, an English tutor in Bath, the founder of an investment firm and a lecturer in computer science, among many other things. If you Google “John Hatman”, on the other hand, you will find that you have the field to yourself. The pressures to take on an all-but-dead surname are, in fact, overwhelming. Give yourself a head start: rechristen yourself, uniquely, Henrietta Fazackerley.