diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 23, 2011

(nb - this is a companion post to "It's exactly twenty-five years today since I went to university")

It's exactly twenty-five years since I finished university. Twenty-five years since I discovered that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. Twenty-five years since I stopped drinking coffee at three in the morning and wondering who'd nicked my milk from the fridge. Twenty-five years since I packed away my books and waved goodbye to certainty. All in all twenty-five years since I've been out here making a go of things on my own. And I was lucky, I got through the system back when it pretty much guaranteed you a job, not a long-term five figure debt.

My last term at university passed in a blur. Most students get stuck into a decent social life at the beginning of their course, then tone things down at the end for revision purposes. I went the other way, slowly upping my number of friends until my college room was the heart of our social circle. Making friends with the second years, who didn't have big exams to prepare for, helped keep the visitors flowing, as did a never-empty jar of Nescafé and one of the few television sets in college. I'd never before managed to hold down quite so many close acquaintances as I had I that final term, and my social life's never been as busy since.

The examination dates for my subject were right at the end of term. My college was keen to throw everybody else out of their accommodation to make way for a far more profitable conference of grown-ups, but those of us with late exams were permitted to stay on within the dwindling community of remaining students. The weather during exam week was ridiculously hot so I was literally sweating over every question, and the World Cup was on too, so Maradona's Hand of God was a most unwelcome interruption during my last night of revision. I'm not convinced that doing any additional revision that evening would have made a difference, but it's convenient to be able to blame Argentina for my subsequent performance.

It's exactly twenty-five years ago today since my very last university exam. I had a good stab at question 25, and a fair attempt at 61, but ground to an unconvincing halt partway through 62. When time finally ran out it was evident that my degree wasn't going to be a stunning one, so the alcoholic celebrations at the end of those last three hours were more in relief than exuberance. Someone had brought spray string, which took forever to remove, and which I understand is banned these days on pain of death. We partied, we went out for a late night pizza, and then we attempted to stay up until dawn to make the most of every last second. I was at least sober enough to be pissed off by my fellow examinees spraying fizzy lager all over my room, and thankfully managed to keep the lunatic in the corridor wielding a fire extinguisher from gaining entrance.

My last 24 hours at university were a bit of a rollercoaster. I was trying to lap up the last few hours of the university experience, only to realise that normality had already departed. I retrieved one last camera film from the chemist but discovered that it hadn't wound on properly, so the memories contained in my last college photographs were all superimposed and therefore useless. And in my pigeonhole I received yet another rejection letter from yet another company who didn't want me - more my loss than theirs, I suspect. When Dad finally arrived to cart away all my belongings I had absolutely no idea where any future career might be heading, just that life would never be quite so easy ever again. Nor quite so much fun.

I rarely communicate now with the university friends I used to know so well. I exchange Christmas cards with a few of them, in which we often scribble how nice it would be to see each other again but never do. I've forgotten virtually everything I was ever taught as part of my three year course, although I still keep folders of now-incomprehensible lecture notes in my spare room. And nobody comes round for coffee until three in the morning any more, which is probably just as well because I realise now that we could never put the world to rights anyway. Few moments in my life were quite so much of a jolt as that sunny June day twenty-five years ago when, with a tear in my eye, I walked out of the known into the unknown.

We students had it so much easier in those days. We took on courses because they interested us, not because of their future market worth. The government paid us to be there, rather than the other way round. And we didn't have to worry that we might be damning ourselves to a lifetime held back by debt, because back then we weren't. It's easy now, as a semi-successful forty-something, to see that investment in my higher education paid off several times over. But not for today's would-be graduates. Too many excellent students won't be getting what I got, they won't risk it, not now that a place at university brings fear of potential long-term financial burden. Blame my generation, who got everything scot free, because we're the ones making the big political decisions twenty-five years later.

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