*This article was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on the 11th of September 2018*
A recent birthday moved me very firmly into the late-30s category and I’m completely at peace with that. At least, I thought I was until I realised that all the students taking their first steps into university life this week were born in a completely different century to me. A different millennium in fact.
It’s Freshers’ week at Edinburgh University and as thousands of bright-eyed, green-behind-the-ears teenagers drag starter packs out of IKEA into Pollock Halls, it’s left me thinking about my own student experience.
“We’re going to Ibiza” by the Vengaboys was number 1 in September 1999 when I was going to Aberdeen to study law. My self-catering halls were £44 a week; catered was nearer £70. I had a classic Nokia mobile phone and it cost 12p every time I replied to a text from my mum reassuring her I was OK. I studied in libraries at a desk with actual books and paper. Laptops were for typing, Wifi wasn’t really a thing yet so you had to queue at the computer room to use dial-up internet.
Students arriving in halls this week will have Wifi In their bedrooms and a phone in their pocket more powerful than the desktop computer I wrote my first contract law essay on. They won’t really remember Tony Blair being Prime Minister, let alone Margaret Thatcher. It’s possible they won’t remember a Labour government, certainly not in Scotland.
In many ways the student experience remains the same. This week, freshers will fork out a few quid to join sports clubs and societies they’ll never return to again. They’ll drink too much, stay out too late but still make it to their 9am tutorials. At least until Christmas. They’ll make best friends overnight. Some they’ll never see again at uni; others will last a lifetime and guide them through all of life’s twists and turns. They’ll find boyfriends and girlfriends, perhaps fall in love in for the first time.
The bad bits remain the same too. The heartache from the break-ups. The crushing pressure of essay deadlines and exams. The 4th day of pasta and sauce. The debt. As the student years progress, the fun dials down a little as the heat turns up. The exams count for more, the money is tighter, the thoughts of growing up and getting a job materialise.
As much as I’d love to start the student experience all over again, I’m not sure I’d choose now over then. When I was a student lawyer, you were virtually guaranteed employment after you graduated, the only slight doubt was whether you’d get a fully funded place to do your diploma in legal practice – the qualification that turned you from law graduate into budding solicitor. Twenty years on, traineeships are highly sought after and require bucket loads of work experience garnered in the summer months.
Computer algorithms are beginning to generate basic legal contracts, replacing junior legal jobs with computer programs. If it wasn’t for Brexit, I’d fear there wasn’t enough work to keep lawyers busy.
The value of a degree is different now too. While there’s still no doubt that those with a university degree will earn more over a lifetime than those without, the gap is narrowing. Those graduates who choose to work in the public sector will find it’s worth less as they’ll be less well paid and carry more debt for longer. When I started work in 2004, the average graduate owed the government £6,000 in loans. A graduate starting out today owes £13,000. That’s before you count the credit cards.
For all those worries, I’m still jealous of all those students starting out in life across this fantastic city this week. I wish them well and offer this one piece of advice: never try putting Fairy Liquid in the washing machine, no matter how skint you are or how dirty your clothes look.