In the autumn of 1997, I was a fresher at the University of Glasgow. Months after the Labour landslide, weeks after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, I was an 18-year-old British-Indian made up of equal parts teenage kicks, terror and Topshop – and on my way to Scotland for the first time, to live and study in a city I had never even visited. I was a 90s Londoner in every sense: geographically ignorant, cocky, earnestly carrying a pager. North, to me, meant north of the Thames. Yet there I was, on a train nosing true north on the west coast mainline.
At Euston station, I was waved off by my parents. I remember nothing of this momentous goodbye. In Carlisle, I felt a great sense of occasion because I thought we had crossed the border. By Motherwell, I was all grown up. In Glasgow, seeing the towering gothic spire of the fourth oldest university in the UK from my cab window, I thought it was the cathedral. When the driver informed me that it was, in fact, my university, I gasped. Had I even seen the prospectus?
Twenty-two years later, I am on another train. Forty years old, less cocky, the pager replaced by a scratched Samsung A5, but once more on my way to my alma mater – as no one in Glasgow calls it. This time, I am heading west from Edinburgh: I never did go back to England.
I am off to meet some freshers and do the things that freshers in 2019 do. Which is, according to my assumptions, drink less. Work more. Do more interacting on social media than freshers’-flu-inducing socialising. Worry about the financial burden of a degree, an unstable job market, rent hikes, epidemic levels of sexual harassment on UK campuses, climate crisis, Brexit and whatever fresh hell is playing out in Westminster. My abiding sense is of a generation of young people carrying a lot more on their young shoulders than mine did. Many have voted in neither a general election nor a referendum, yet find themselves living in the most turbulent period of British history since well before their parents were born.
‘I probably wouldn’t have come if you had to pay for it’ … Rachel Christie, 18, from Perth. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
On campus, at first glance, freshers’ week is as it ever was. Crazy busy, strewn with Domino’s branding (free pizza is being handed out at the main gate), soundtracked by tinny beats pumped out of who knows where, filled with a sea of friendly and daunted faces. The fashion, too, has come full circle: jeans, T-shirts, check shirts, trainers, a surfeit of blue- and pink-dyed hair. The front page of the university newspaper, the Glasgow Guardian, carries a splash about the university’s £3m investment in the arms trade, plus stories about tackling Glasgow stereotypes and where to get cheap cocktails. Wandering along University Avenue, I am offered a free bible, a copy of Socialist Worker and a flyer for pole-dancing classes. Plus ça change.
In room 243 – found despite the directions “between cloisters and south front” that I still find incomprehensible – I meet the four freshers I will be hanging out with. “It’s overwhelming,” says Nina Smith, 17, from Paisley, six miles south-west. “But it’s a nice place to be lost.” It is her first day and she is finding freshers’ week “a bit scary”. Studying German and music, she works part-time in Ikea (16 hours a week, often jumping to 25) and is starting a shift at 5pm. All four students have a part-time job or are looking for one. When I started, the year before tuition fees were introduced UK-wide and at the tail end of grants, I worked only during the summer holidays, pulling pints in a pub back home, and it was for spending money, not to get by. Smith, on the other hand, wasn’t even sure she was going to apply to university. What would she have done instead? “I was thinking about taking a gap year and working full-time. Saving money. Then I thought: ‘If I do that, I won’t want to go to uni.’”
Lewis Hannah, 17, is from Airdrie, to the east of Glasgow, and studying physics. Like Smith, he will be staying at home and commuting. “All my friends except one are staying at home,” he says. The next day, after an Abba/Queen “Massaoke” night – in which a live band played the bands’ hits and the lyrics were projected on to a giant screen for a singalong; you could attend only with a £48 freshers’ wristband – I phone to see how it went. “The union was packed. You could barely move.” Was it fun? “Yeah, I was there until the end, about 2am.” How did he get home? “My mum picked me up.”
A “unicorn” outside Glasgow’s freshers’ fair. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Rachel Christie, 18, is the only one of the four staying in university accommodation. “Perth is too far,” she explains. What are her halls like? “A bit overpriced,” she says. “I would have preferred private accommodation.” Cooking for herself is “OK, but the kitchen is a mess. No one cleans up after themselves. And my oven doesn’t work.” She concedes that it is good for meeting people. When I phone her the following day, to see how her night out at an Iyaz gig went, the social benefits of halls are clear. “First I went to another flat with my friends and we drank there for a bit,” she says. Is she hungover? “No, just a bit tired,” she laughs.
She and Hannah are the first people in their families to go to university. Three out of four of the group are part of the UK-wide Widening Participation programme, which aims to attract people who live in certain postcode areas; have been in care; have caring responsibilities, a disability or an impairment; or are estranged from family.
Murrin Duggan, from outside Port Glasgow, 15 miles west of Glasgow, is one of a handful of 16-year-olds enrolling as a first-year undergraduate in 2019. She and Christie are studying French, Spanish and Portuguese. Although it is common for freshers to be 17 in Scotland, 16 is unusually young. Why did she come so early? “When Brexit comes, we don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Duggan says. “So that’s why I left school early. I just want to make sure I get into uni, because you never know. You might start getting charged for it, and it’s quite a lot of money.”
“I probably wouldn’t have come if you had to pay for it,” Christie adds.
“Same,” says Smith. “Go while you can.”
‘When Brexit comes, we don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s why I left school early’ … Murrin Duggan, 16, from Port Glasgow. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
In Scotland, Scottish students get free university tuition, for which they have to re-apply each year. At Glasgow, half the students come from Scotland. I remember being struck not only by the university’s Scottishness, but also how Glaswegian it was. It also felt very white, especially in the arts and humanities departments where I studied English literature and philosophy. Everyone tells me how radically different the university is now, which is clear from the multitude of languages I hear on campus. There are about 6,500 international students, 3,000 EU students and 1,300 European staff. How this might change after Brexit remains to be seen. “EU students pay no tuition fees here,” explains Rachel Sandison, a vice-principal at the university. “It’s allowed us to welcome really high-quality European talent into Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects.” The consequences of a no-deal Brexit, she says, would be “huge”.
Memory is an unearthly form of archeology. I thought I remembered almost nothing of freshers’ week, but when I got off the tube at Hillhead subway station in the West End I experienced what the novelist Muriel Spark described as “an inpouring of love” for those intense days. The smell of hormones, disinfectant, cigarette smoke and club smoke machines. An excruciating traffic-light party at the GU union. (I wore amber.) The sound of Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping everywhere. A poster fair where I bought a Steve McQueen still from Bullitt, even though I had never seen the film and didn’t fancy its hypermasculine lead.
What I really remember, though, is drinking. A lot. It felt like an expectation and really good fun. A 1997 freshers’ guide sent to me by the archive department introduced the week as a “pre-term drinking and entertainment extravaganza organised in your honour”. One of the biggest changes in the two decades since I was a student is the way alcohol is perceived and consumed. According to a survey by University College London, 36% of 16- to 24-year-olds in full-time education abstain from drinking. “I was a bit nervous, because I don’t drink,” says Duggan. “But I’ve met a lot of people who don’t drink, either. It’s not what I expected.”
‘I was thinking about working full-time. Then I thought: “If I do that, I won’t want to go to uni”’ … Nina Smith, 17, from Paisley. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
In the cloisters, after the surreal experience of stroking a pony with rainbow hair and a silver horn stuck to its forehead, we fight our way past a stall signing freshers up to six months’ free Amazon Prime. In 1997, the internet amounted to sitting in front of a Netscape Navigator screen and pretending to “do” the world wide web. None of the students I meet worry about online harassment. Yet, earlier this month, Dr Emma Short, the director of the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research at the University of Bedfordshire, said a watershed had been reached with the first generation of digital natives entering higher education. “The thresholds in universities for what has become normalised behaviour very often exceed criminal prosecution thresholds,” she tells me. “Things like persistent messaging, flooding messaging across platforms, pushing for DMs [direct messages]. The moment a person on the receiving end begins to feel fear and unease, you’re in the realm of harassment. And students will tolerate much higher levels of risk than I would say are safe levels.”
For Duggan, though, online interaction has helped make starting university less intimidating. “We’ve been in group chats on Facebook, so we already know people without going to a lecture yet,” says Duggan, who makes YouTube videos to take her mind off stress. “I’m a bit nervous coming to new places, so the uni’s YouTube campus tours really helped.”
“Since primary school, we’ve been taught how to take care online,” Hannah says. “It’s ingrained in the same way as looking left and right before crossing the road.”
We head to the freshers’ fair, which, depending on your personality, is a treasure trove of information and freebies or a sensory nightmare. All the world is here, from Women in Stem to the Grim Reapers quidditch club. I can’t remember attending it myself, but what is immediately apparent is the focus on what is referred to as “the student experience”. In my time, this would have been a euphemism for sex, drugs and booze; now, it means mental health and wellbeing, among other things.
When I was an undergraduate, if we were struggling, all the unspoken feelings spilled out as bravado and drunkenness – if you were lucky. If it got serious, it tended to be hushed up. Now, when one in five students has a mental health condition, the number of students seeking help has soared and mental health is at the top of the agenda. “There are unprecedented pressures on children and young adults that are flowing into universities,” says John de Pury, the assistant director of policy at Universities UK. “We have to be exemplary in terms of care and inclusiveness.” At Glasgow, where waiting times for assessment are nine days compared with the UK average of 52, all four freshers I speak to say they would not hesitate to tell someone if they were struggling.
‘Online safety is ingrained, like looking left and right before crossing the road’ … Lewis Hannah, 17, from Airdrie. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
In the English literature department, I track down my old lecturer, Dr Vassiliky Kolokotroni, in her book-lined office. How does she think students have changed since she taught me? “The pressures are much greater now,” she says. “Everything is a lot more quantified. In the 00s, students became a bit smug and apathetic. There was a sense in which university was a world in its own right. Now, I find students are more radicalised and prepared to understand what’s going on in the world. The level of engagement in politics is much greater.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but I went to university in a golden age. No one paid tuition fees. The future was secure enough to be uninteresting: I simply didn’t consider it. I was free to think, find out more about myself and have an obscene amount of fun. None of the freshers I speak to have voted. All would do so. They are ready to vote, march and have their say in a referendum, whether on Scottish independence or the EU.
For now, though, they need to go. There are vouchers to collect, events to attend, shifts to work and preparations to make for nights out. Duggan and Christie are off to a language cafe, where dozens of students from all over the world will sit around tables in a strip-lit canteen, talking to each other in more than 20 languages. Smith has to go to work. Hannah has to head home to get ready for tonight. Student life goes on. Meanwhile, I head for the train with a middle-aged spring in my step. The kids may not always be all right, but they give me hope for the future.