I’ve always fancied myself as a relaxed uncle. Someone who lets the occasional expletive pass, doesn’t mind being called by his first name, and will sometimes even let the little brats win at Super Mario. But there turns out to be a subject on which I am utterly Victorian: university.
I recently had, in the words of one my six nephews and nieces, “an epi”, when he suggested he might not “bovver” with university. And no one was more surprised by the tantrum than me, given that when I applied for Cambridge, none of three elder siblings had gone into further education, given his mother’s (and my sister’s) reaction when I got the place was “where’s Oxbridge”?, and given my time at Christ’s College was characterised by acute homesickness, guilt and social bewilderment.
Indeed, only one friendship seems to have lasted from that time, I didn’t have a girlfriend for three long years, and was subsequently so traumatised that I once wrote in this newspaper that “If I were 18 now, I’d probably give the whole thing is a miss”. But there is a gap between pontificating on an issue and what you wish for the children in your life, it’s uncouth to complain about something you got for free but which is now costing a new generation of students tens of thousands of pounds, and when it comes down to it, I can now see, with the benefit of more than a decade’s hindsight, that the advantages vastly outweighed the disadvantages. Amongst them: the fact that university normalises success.
I cannot recall the last time I opened a magazine or newspaper or sat down for an evening of TV without spotting someone I was at university with. Admittedly, comedian David Mitchell was already so popular at Footlights that I would have no more approached him than I would now knock on Elton John’s front door for a cup of tea. And I wouldn’t sit next to Hugo Rifkind in the Times canteen without consulting his agent first. But some of the most significant breakthroughs and artistic developments have been made within the quadrangles of British universities, and while there are times when these achievements can make you feel small, when your college’s alumni include John Milton and Charles Darwin, applying for a job in the British civil service, or writing a book, doesn’t seem such a big deal. University broadens your ambition by default.
Another valuable thing about attending college: it buys you time. Most 18 years olds might think they’re mature and ready for the real world, but there are a certain number of dodgy hairstyles and laughable fashion experiments, a certain amount of bad poetry and left wing politics that young adults need to get out of their system, and university is a safe place to explore such silliness. I thought I was incredibly sophisticated at 18, but given I briefly gave myself the nickname “Blade” at college, spent tutorials trying to get pop lyrics into discussions (once uttering the words “It’s Only Rock and Roll But I Like It” during a seminar on Keats), spent a number of evenings spraying the walls of hallways with ice cream (sorry), and as a student journalist wrote to Professor Stephen Hawking asking for his views on a new Spice Girls record (if memory serves, he liked it, and expressed particular admiration for Ginger Spice), it’s probably a good job I was kept away from the workplace between 1995 and 1998.
The third advantage, at the risk of sounding like one of my old grammar school teachers: university also makes you realise that anything can be achieved through hard work. Most people go through life feeling like they’re faking it, that they are about to be found out, and while this feeling never really goes, university tempers the anxiety by making your realise that true genius is rare and that everyone else is also winging it too. My favourite illustration of the phenomenon comes from historian Niall Ferguson, who was a tutor at Christ’s and whose first students included a certain Sacha Baron Cohen. When they first met he thought he was an utter genius, a double-starred-first student, if ever he’d seen one. But it slowly became apparent that he was actually playing the part of being a genius. “He wasn’t reading the books at all,” Ferguson explained when I recently interviewed him for The Times. “He was just acting the role, and spending most of his time at Footlights.”
Which leads me to the main advantage of a university education: it teaches you how to deal with people from backgrounds different to yours. Over the years I have felt bad about not bonding enough with my college mates, but just because we didn’t become great pals it didn’t mean I didn’t learn something from the right wing Tory who thought there was nothing wrong with “n” word and had the Confederate flag on display in his room, from the Muslim guy who threatened to throttle me after I made an incompetent attempt to chat up his girlfriend, from the geeks so socially dysfunctional that they would only leave their rooms to wash at 2am, from the middle class descendants of Cabinet ministers trying to pass off as working class warriors, from predatory homosexual tutors, and, more than anything else, from the posh.
I grew up thinking the upper classes were braying ludicrous, pointless, asinine creatures who swanned about in silk dressing gowns, slurred their speech and only really existed in meaningful numbers in Evelyn Waugh novels. But university taught me they are real, are on the whole quite nice, and, moreover, that they run the country. And frankly, if I hadn’t spent 72 weeks learning about the value the posh place on phony apologetic self-denigration (the second mansion in the Highlands is “the Scottish cottage”), dressing badly (we gauche provincial Grammar school boys spent as much time ironing shirts as working, but the average Hooray Henry wouldn’t think twice of appearing with a filthy shirt hanging out from the back of his trousers), the stiff upper lip (emotional invulnerability remaining the uniting feature of all the Etonians I have ever met), and, more than anything else, “effortless superiority” (a technique that involves accomplishing amazing feats, seemingly with ease) I would never have made it onto Fleet Street.
I’m not sure that the old argument that university teaches you about “independence” and “real life” is true of Cambridge. If anything I regressed: my college discouraged car use, part time employment, and cooking/cleaning for yourself. And at Cambridge one lives in a bizarre bubble of bedders, boaties, butteries, high table drinking and dining, and “clubbing” at “bops” and “ents”. But it certainly taught me something about how the British establishment functions, and it remains the case that if you don’t go to university and come from a working class, or non-indigenous, background you will struggle to understand the ways of the average merchant bank or the BBC.
Which is not to suggest that I wouldn’t do things differently if I had my time again. I’d obsess less about work, eat fewer microwaveable macaroni cheeses, stay up more, spend more time punting to Granchester, watch more daytime TV, cling on less tightly to my best friend, a half French, half Scottish artist who felt as bewildered as I did, and take those George Michael posters down. On reflection, it’s not particularly surprising that so many of my college mates thought I was gay.
But looking back it wasn’t that bad: you can work somewhere for a decade and not end up with a single lasting friend. I did some radio journalism, sold stories to the Telegraph, was subsidised, pampered, given a bubble in which to read brilliant books for three years. I went to yoga. Once. Was introduced you to The Ink Spots, Bob Dylan, classical music and oat cakes. And for all the negatives I learnt some very important life lessons there, not least that famous people are often nicer than you expect, that nothing on this planet is as bad as bad student drama, that if you are going to lock yourself out of your bedroom in the middle of the night it is best to do it fully clothed, and that any opinion is valid as long as you can explain why.
And yes, I felt like I was betraying my family at the time by leaving home, and the departure scenes in Wolverhampton felt like something out of a Bollywood film: my mother standing in the doorway, pressing money she couldn’t afford into my hand; my father on the verge of tears; both of them looking as if they might run after the departing car, their feet splashing in the rain, screaming for it to stop. But my parents cried at my graduation too, and even though I am betraying my roots here by breaking with the convention of effortless superiority, I’m proud that I graduated with a first class degree in literature, even though my father can’t read and my mother doesn’t speak English. I’d be mortified if my nephews and nieces couldn’t experience a similar kind of satisfaction. Besides, even if they don’t end up having the time of their life, it’s only three years, which, according to reports, is how long the average bloke spends on the toilet.
Originally published in March 2011, as part “Is it still worth going to university?” supplement in The Times