The countryside I often take myself to is strange in that it’s also a university. A mile or so out of town there is a little rural campus, an outpost of Nottingham Trent University for students in agriculture and environmental sciences, set in the grounds of a minor country estate. It is an almost absurdly neat Venn diagram of my favourite categories.
There is a working farm, criss-crossed with footpaths that follow the hedges of fields with names such as Bottom Close and Big Dickholme. At the lower boundary the footpath tracks alongside a stream through a narrow wooded valley, its trees dotted with wildlife boxes and camera traps. And then there is a miniature lake and reed bed with a hide for watching waterbirds, before the path loops up towards parkland and house.
The house is the kind of Victorian pile that was doomed to dilapidate – too small to become a tourist attraction, too demanding to remain a home for the dwindling class of gentry families for which such houses were built. When its last owner died in 1947 the estate was taken on by the Ministry of Agriculture, as a training college in farming to meet postwar food shortages. Slowly, the house is being renovated, to undo the work of 20th-century asbestos.
All summer long, the campus has been deserted. On sunlit mornings I have wandered through the grounds – from walled kitchen garden and sunken garden and orangery to rose garden and formal lawn – in Merchant Ivory-tinged solitude. In a few days, it will be full of students again.
In town, they have started to move into their house-shares, negotiating passages with boxes and bits of furniture, trailing parents who look near-tearful. They are contagious, those feelings: the vicarious glimpses you get, doubled through parents’- and child’s-eye views, of a person who is suddenly not a child, and who is about to embark upon a Very Big Thing.
The idea of beginning freshers’ week in a tiny market town, at a campus with just a few hundred fellow teenagers, to do your learning outdoors, is all so very different from my own undergraduate memories in big, hyper-studenty Leeds. Occasionally, it makes me wonder if electing to train myself in a strictly indoors skill set was a fundamental life error. One of my neighbours studied ecology here, and conducted her dissertation fieldwork on mushrooms in churchyards.
But, given the option to do it all over again, who would choose to be a student in 2023? Inadequate maintenance loans, extortionate housing and a soaring cost of living; the prospect of servicing interest payments that function as a tax on the next four decades of your future earnings. I feel dreadful for them.
And how unbearably sad to have been the cohort before them: who began their degrees in lockdown, legally barred from the accommodation for which they were still paying, and who graduated with their work still unmarked amid industrial action.
But who would envy academics in 2023 either? I’ve just got back from a weekend visiting a friend who is a lecturer. She has the relative gold dust of a permanent contract – the kind of job security that most academics dream of attaining a few years into their career. She works, more often than not, seven days a week. Since May, her university has deducted 50 per cent of pay for academics taking part in the University and College Union marking boycott, making her effective hourly pay fall so far below minimum wage that it probably stops being a useful point of comparison.
Towards the end of our night out, as I grab the last table for last orders, she is served at the bar by one of her students, who will not let her pay. It’s on him, he insists, to thank her for everything she has done for him. And she has done, almost, everything – written the lectures, taught the seminars, kept office hours, answered students’ emails, written them references, been a sympathetic ear when they were struggling with things far outside their coursework, and more. Just not the marking – because what else do you do, when your union calls for industrial action? And what then, when your employer is indifferent?
For a long moment, my friend cannot speak, because she is trying not to cry, and because she is more thankful to our barman than he could know.
[See also: The case for student salaries]
This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites