7 Ways University Has Changed Since Your Parents Were There

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Your parents might have certain ideas about what going to university is like, especially if they’re graduates themselves.

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However, as we saw in our recent article looking at the history of British universities, the university landscape in this country has changed hugely. Twenty years ago, a third of current British universities hadn’t yet been founded. A further third date to the twenty year period before that. Many of them existed in another form – as colleges or polytechnics, for instance – but many others are brand new. Depending on how old your parents are, their university experience might have been hugely different in a variety of ways, from how they spent their time and how they earned their money to who they were friends with and where they travelled. Here’s our look at the top 7 ways universities have changed since 1995.

1. How you carry out research

Pile of Books
The majority of research that students carry out today will be based online

The most obvious change in student life between 1995 and 2015 is the development of the internet. The internet existed in 1995, but most of the websites we use today did not; Google dates from 1996, Facebook from 2004 and YouTube from 2005. Here’s the BBC website from 1996. Today, a student looking for a book in their university’s library will probably check online to see if the library has it in stock. If their library doesn’t, they’ll order it electronically from another university’s library. However, it’s likely they won’t be looking for a book at all; they’ll be looking for a journal online, or finding the electronic version of the book on Google Books.
This can be tricky for some students today. After all, it’s rare that our popular culture has properly caught up – so our images of a student doing research in a film is still of someone in a library, hunting through shelves for another dusty book to add to the pile growing on their desk. It’s like the research equivalent of a training montage, and it’s about as close to reality as that kind of montage would be to the average person’s gym routine. It can be unsatisfying when the pile of things you’ve read isn’t something you can slam down on a desk, but instead is a case of moving a bookmark (which meant something different in 1995, too) on your web browser from one folder to another. Furthermore, your family might not realise that in the holidays, the time you’re spending on your laptop genuinely is spent studying.
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2. Who is at university with you

Presently, there are more students than ever before. However, student demographics have changed hugely over time. In 1995, there were slightly more male than female full-time undergraduate students (though significantly more female part-time students, leading to more female students overall). At Oxford University in 1995, male students outnumbered female students three to two. Nowadays, male students are still in the majority at Oxford, but the figures are nowhere near so extreme; over 45% of Oxford University students are female. Nationally, more than 55% of undergraduates in total are women. The percentage of undergraduates from state schools, ethnic minorities and working-class backgrounds has also risen nationally, albeit more slowly (although these statistics are harder to collect than statistics on gender).

The rise of low cost air travel has made studying abroad easier for international students.

A further change is the number of overseas students at UK universities today and where they come from. The price of an international flight has gone down considerably since the advent of discount airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair, particularly for students travelling within Europe. The Erasmus programme – created to encourage students to spend a term or year studying in a different European country – has existed since 1987, but now it’s more affordable for an Erasmus student to spend mid-term holidays or even regular long weekends at home. Students are now also coming from further and further abroad. Students from south-east Asia, for instance, would have been a rare sight in lecture halls twenty or thirty years ago, but their presence in British universities is entirely normal today.

3. How you pay for it

Until 1998, all university education in the UK was free. For students with financial difficulties, there was also a significant system of grants and loans to help out. While students in the 90s and before certainly did take on part-time work, this was more likely to be in order to fund socialising and less for the basic necessities of life.

Supermarket checkout
The majority of students today will seek part time work to support themselves through university

Nowadays, between 60% and 80% of students have a job of some kind (depending on who you ask and how you count a job), and one in seven students somehow manage to work full-time at the same time as studying. Fees at most universities in the UK are set at £9,000 per year, and living costs such as rent are much higher too. While the system of loans has been expanded to cover these changes, it’s understandable that many students would like to minimise the amount of debt they have when they graduate by working their way through university. It could be said that the modern university student is less likely to be a lazy slob or permanently in the library than an inveterate multi-tasker, going from their laptop to their tutoring job and back at a moment’s notice.

4. How students feel about studying

Stephen Fry wrote of his time at Queen’s College, Cambridge in the 1970s that “lectures broke into one’s day and were clearly a terrible waste of time, necessary no doubt if you were reading law or medicine or some other vocational subject, but in the case of English, the natural thing to do was talk a lot, listen to music…”. At another point, Fry claimed to have done “absolutely no work” while he was there. This information is particularly galling to anyone interested in medieval literature, given that the tutor Fry neglected while he was at Cambridge was AC Spearing, one of the world’s leading academics in that field. Furthermore, Stephen Fry’s attitude – the idea that the point of university was to meet like-minded people and exchange ideas with them, rather than do anything as gauche as formal study – was by no means uncommon at the time.

Lecture Hall Seats
Today, many universities will monitor students’ attendance at lectures. Low attendance is likely to affect your grades.

What’s particularly noteworthy about Fry’s pose is that he graduated with a healthy 2:1, which suggests that he must have worked reasonably hard, even if he chose to spend his time in the library rather than in the lecture theatre. Nonetheless, he still took the attitude in writing his biography that it was better to appear to have succeeded without putting any real effort in at all.
Fry’s attitude would hardly wash at university in 2015, where students are rather more likely to complain that they have too few hours of lectures than too many, despite all the part-time work they’re doing. The attitude that it is somehow ‘uncool’ to appear to be trying is (thankfully) one that most students now leave behind them when they leave school. Students today are more likely to accord respect to those “vocational subjects” (about which Fry sounds just a little disdainful) because of their gruelling hours of lectures or lengthy reading lists.

5. How much attention anyone pays to teaching

Pity the University of Bristol. It’s arguably one of the top ten best universities in the UK, and ranks as the 11th most competitive university to get into in the country. Despite this, on the Guardian university league table, it continues to slide further and further down the rankings. From placing in the high 20s five years ago, to 34th last year, to 35th this year, Bristol has been beaten by universities such as Falmouth and Strathclyde, which previously would hardly have been considered competition. The main reason behind this is the student satisfaction rating, which is much lower than you might expect from such a prestigious university. Twenty years ago, whether a student was happy with the teaching, the quality of feedback or the style of lecture they were receiving was seen as irrelevant. University league tables of the kind we have today, published by newspapers and browsed avidly by prospective students, have only existed for a couple of decades.

Book pages
With standards and expectations rising across the UK, it could be that students today are better taught than ever before.

Now, as Bristol is seeing, student satisfaction is paramount, alongside measurable targets and defensible feedback on students’ work. The days of essays with nothing but “what is this nonsense?!” written on them in red pen are dying, to be replaced by full feedback forms that should – in theory – offer the student a better basis on which to improve.
This development means that the stereotypical eccentric professor, who might spend the majority of the lecture talking about his own research and nothing relevant to the course, but who is utterly inspiring to his students, is increasingly likely to be out of a job. Additionally, another kind of stereotypical professor, the one who speaks in a monotone to the blackboard, is never in during office hours and whose only inspiration to students has been to switch courses, is also unlikely to have great job prospects. Students of today are more likely to be better taught than ever before, albeit they might lose out on an anecdote or two in the process.

6. Who’s teaching the students

baby with laptop
The idea of being taught by people who are still students themselves, with only a few more years academic experience than the students they are teaching, would probably be shocking in 1995.

Related to the previous point is the fact that the people who are likely to be teaching undergraduate courses have changed since 1995. Once, it was the case that lectures and tutorials were the preserve of higher-ranking academics; students were taught by professors, fellows or at the very least, post-doctoral students with a bit of academic experience under their belts. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to be taught by PhD students, who might only be in their second year of doctoral study – so if you’re a third-year undergraduate, they might have just three years more academic experience than you.
This development has advantages and disadvantages. Your parents, for instance, might be shocked at the thought – thinking that you were going to university to learn from experts in your field, only to learn that you were being taught by people in their mid to late twenties who may not yet have had time to develop expertise. In fact, you might discover that you learn a lot more from a PhD student than you do from a respected professor who is a couple of years away from retirement. PhD students are usually excited about the possibilities of teaching, able to remember how they were taught as undergraduates and are determined to do better if possible. The most respected of more experienced professors, by contrast, may be more likely to see teaching as an irritating distraction, keeping them away from the research they’d much rather be doing instead.
This isn’t an absolute rule: there are professors who are passionate about educating the next generation, and there are PhD students who take up teaching hours simply for the money, and who don’t really care about how much you learn or how well you do. Having close contact with big names in your field can be advantageous for future job applications, as having an impressive name as a referee can really help in some areas, but that doesn’t work so well if you interacted much more with their PhD student than with them. In general, however, undergraduates taught by PhD students don’t lose out as much as you might instinctively think.

7. The difference between student life and working life

Image shows students protesting to save education
University has long been a place where young people become engaged with causes they feel strongly about.

The traditional idea of the student experience, dating from the 60s, 70s and 80s is of three or four years that were a world apart from the rest of your life. The idea was of university as a time when you went far from home and lived entirely differently. You’d survive on crummy food, send your washing home if you could, avoid other chores, avoid lectures and do just as much work as you needed to do for the degree classification you wanted. You might work part-time in the student bar. You’d take part in radical politics and campaign for causes you’d soon abandon once you left. You’d enjoy yourself to the full and graduate ready to settle down in the real world.
This type of university life probably never actually existed, and comes mostly from stereotype. However, stereotypes have a grain of truth, and certainly there’s a generation who will say, “well, I did that at university” as if anything done within the confines of the three or four years of an undergraduate degree doesn’t really count.
For many reasons, including all of the changes listed above, student life isn’t really a separate entity from ‘real’ life anymore. You are no longer surrounded by people from only a small part of the population; instead, university students are drawn from all walks of life, perhaps not evenly, but certainly a whole lot more evenly than in the past. If you had a Saturday job in a chain of cafés as a teenager, you might carry on the same job in your local branch at university. You probably won’t sleep weird, antisocial hours, but might well be getting up for 9am lectures just like you got up for 9am classes at school, and as you’ll get up for a 9am start when you have a full-time job. Radical politics seem to have beaten a sharp retreat from university campuses as well. Going to university is still a great opportunity to decide how you want your life to be, free from the external influences that will govern it at other points, but it’s much less different from ‘real’ life than it once was.
What do you think has changed in universities in the past twenty years? Let us know in the comments?


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