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What students really need to know about starting out at university

Published 26/09/2015

Glory days: for many students university life has been a life-defining experience
Glory days: for many students university life has been a life-defining experience
Learning seat: Oxford University
Free thinking: there was little sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll, but UCD was a hothouse for political argument
Queen's University Belfast

Not every undergraduate has as colourful a time as David Cameron did, and for most teenagers who are beginning uni this month it is a period of anticipation and upheaval. Here, three Belfast Telegraph writers recall their own experiences from the Sixties, Seventies and Nineties.

'A second-year tickled me... so I punched him and burst into tears'

My dad bought me an amazing pirate trunk at a Belfast auction after he learned that I'd been accepted at Oxford University to study Pure and Applied Biology. This was in the early Nineties.

But, as I helped him to manhandle it up the stairs to my room at St Anne's College on the first day of Freshers' Week, there was a big part of me that wanted to let go and say: "No, actually. This has been a terrible mistake. I'm sorry. Can we go home now?"

The few people that I'd encountered on the way in past the gate lodge seemed so confident, so upper crust. It was a world away from Larne, where I'd grown up. They weren't, in fact; they were just English.

The good thing about St Anne's - and an important reason why I'd chosen to apply there - was that it had a 50:50 gender balance and much healthier ratio of state school to public school students than some of the other colleges in the land of dreaming spires.

In Oxford at the time, the colleges were doing all they could to break the Brideshead image, clamping down on the hoorays and trying to attract more state school applicants through the Target Schools scheme.

Every so often, you'd catch glimpses of another world - toffs in tails dining in panelled chambers, ballgowned honourables leaping in the river. There was a girl on my course who was rumoured to own her own fishing fleet in Indonesia.

But it was all so anachronistic and, in the wake of the Eighties and Red Wedge, it seemed like something that was on the way out; dinosaurs enjoying their last hurrah. Nowadays, the line-up of the Cabinet suggests otherwise.

Anyway, I kept my fears to myself. We heaved the luggage into the small room in the tall terrace house, admired the view over the network of gardens outside and installed the trunk in a corner.

A knock on the door heralded a crowd of clamouring strangers proposing to whisk me off to the Horse and Jockey across the road.

Those were the sponsors and their charges - my classmates-to-be. Each second-year student was allocated a fresher to usher through the terrifying first week, showing us round the college and the Zoology department, introducing us to our Moral Tutor and warning us about the food. And the electricity meters, which only took old 5ps that had to be begged from the porter.

I could hardly utter a word on the first night. I was so dumbstruck with fear that eventually one of the second years had to resort to tickling me to get any response. It worked. I punched him and burst into tears.

But after that, the floodgates were open and I talked to everyone. I realised my voice was just as worth hearing as anyone else's.

I went to the fresher party and talked to everyone I met. It led to numerous late-night conversations in crowded bedrooms to the strains of the Stone Roses and Voodoo Ray - some awkward, some horrifying, some fascinating.

Some led to adventures, drunken messes and lifelong friendships: others resulted in immediate antipathy.

If I regret anything about Freshers' Week, it's that I didn't get involved in any societies. I did try rowing, but decided it wasn't for me after I got an oar painfully jammed in my stomach.

Living in a college of 450 students did make it feel like a community, but after a while it began to feel too closed in.

And, by the end, I was ready for the real world."

  • Linda Stewart is the Belfast Telegraph's environment correspondent

'Drugs? I'd rather have had a night at the debating society'

There were no drugs, almost no sex and only occasional rock 'n' roll in the early Sixties at University College, Dublin. And we were too poor to afford much alcohol.

In those days, apart from a handful of county scholarships, there was no financial help with fees except for those students who - like me - had a father who was a UCD academic. I say father because women had to resign from public service jobs on marriage.

So, as a fellow-student and I listened sympathetically to Jackie from Belfast telling us about the oppression of Catholics in Northern Ireland, our mouths dropped open with incredulity when we discovered that she had her fees paid and a maintenance grant from the wicked British Government to study in Dublin.

The most prosperous parents dished out generous pocket-money, but many of us worked in the holidays (I was a cack-handed hairdresser's assistant and an inefficient waitress in Dublin, and a moderately competent typist in London and in Baltimore).

My boyfriend, whom I married at 21, was one of the many who worked all summer canning beans in Kent. We were a repressed and cowed generation. Living at home, or in hostels, or overcrowded digs policed with nosey landladies, sex was rarely an option.

And, of course, there was no access to contraceptives.

Most of us who occasionally left the state could summon up the nerve to smuggle the odd banned book, but it would have taken exceptional courage to brave a customs officer with a stash of contraband condoms.

In any case, the girls - and many of the boys - were so terrified of the social consequences of extra-marital pregnancy that virginity was preferable to risk.

In theory, UCD was non-denominational: in practice, it was Catholic. These were the days when the Archbishop of Dublin would excommunicate anyone going to Trinity College without his express permission.

As the popular verse went:

Young men may loot, perjure and shoot

And even have carnal knowledge

But however depraved, their souls will be saved

If they don't go to Trinity College.

Michael Tierney, the president of UCD, deeply disapproved of any contact with Trinity students, so some of us made a point of finding friends there.

They privately sneered at bit at us (UCD was known as "The Tech"), and we privately ridiculed them as Oxford and Cambridge rejects, but the competitive debaters and the historians mixed freely and organised joint events.

Although its facilities were infinitely superior, my intimates and I were never envious of Trinity. We had spent enough time there to think they didn't have half as much fun as we did.

Our history department, in particular, was stuffed with brilliant eccentrics, ideas were discussed freely, the quality of debate in the societies was stunning and the hecklers as merciless as they were hilarious.

I still treasure the happy memories of that overcrowded building in Earlsfort Terrace and the life-long friendships I made there.

I spent a few years in Cambridge afterwards and found it very dull by comparison.

I don't begrudge Oxbridge students drugs, debauchery and anything else they enjoyed, but I'd always have settled for a defiant, raucous, irreverent Saturday night at the UCD Literary and Historical Debating Society."

  • Ruth Dudley Edwards' column appears in the Belfast Telegraph every Monday

'It's astonishing the sense of liberation that you feel there'

I arrived at the Church of Ireland Centre on Elmwood Avenue (across the road from Queen's University Students' Union) on the first Sunday of October 1974.

It was a strange place for an atheist from a Presbyterian background to find himself, yet for some reason the university authorities had decided it would be the perfect accommodation for a "fresher" from Armagh. Some of my happiest memories are of long conversations about religion with a fellow student, John Mann, who is now Dean of Belfast.

The following day, the beginning of Freshers' Week, was an eye-opener for me, because I found myself surrounded by people with strange sounding names like Fionnuala, Malachi, Deirdre and Sean.

I had met Catholics before, but only at inter-schools events, and there wasn't one I could describe as a friend. Yet, here I was at the stalls for The Gown student newspaper and the 16 Club (student film society) signing up for membership on the same form as people who I had been led to believe were my "enemies".

Yet, because of our shared interests away from politics, we found ourselves working shoulder-to-shoulder and building bonds that have stood the test of time.

I also found myself surrounded by girls, which was a huge social/psychological shock for an only child who had been educated at a single-sex school and had never even had a girlfriend.

Worse, I was congenitally shy (I still am, believe it or not) and would blush and drip with sweat if a girl even said hello to me.

After three months, I plucked up the courage to ask one for a date - dinner and a film - only to be rejected with, "That's so nice of you, but I'm into other girls". We became friends, though - a friendship that was to shape my views on homosexuality and gay people's demand for equality.

The other thing about that first term at QUB was the new-found sense of freedom. It's astonishing the sense of liberation you feel when you can drink, smoke, stay out late, get up late, play snooker instead of going to lectures and leave a kitchen and bedroom looking like a war zone and not have to worry about your parents.

Until, that is, a few weeks later, when you begin to miss the comforts of home and the quiet sense of control which parents bring to your life. As so many students have discovered, it's only when you leave home that you actually appreciate home.

Politics, of course, played a major part in my university life. Freshers' Week was actually the first time I met members of the SDLP, DUP, Republican Labour, Vanguard, UPNI (Brian Faulkner's post-Sunningdale party), Sinn Fein and others: and it was also the first time that I had the chance to sit and talk with them about their beliefs.

Those conversations never shifted me from my belief in the Union, but they reinforced my view that unionism needed to explain itself better and learn to present itself in a more attractive, positive manner. Four decades on and I'm still saying that.

I loved university. I worked hard to get there, and I went at a time when around just 12% (600,000) of school leavers went. There was an elitism about it - I accept that - as well as a sense of wonder and the near-certainty of walking straight into employment.

My generation - with their grants and parental help - were able to enjoy and benefit from university. Things have changed, though, mostly in the sense that students leave with debts and often without jobs.

And maybe that is because they are re more like degree machines, rather than places of genuine excitement and enlightenment.

I would not want to be starting now."

  • Alex Kane is a writer and commentator

Belfast Telegraph

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