Friday Special: The Worst Parts of University Life
University isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and the prospectus can be deceiving. Even open days are polished experiences, with students employed to portray the university in the best way. I have no problem with that, and I don’t think that universities are intentionally misleading potential students. However, if we’ve learnt anything in the past year, it’s that universities aren’t the most adaptable to change, and that has uncovered some other flaws that are intrinsic to the way that higher education works here in the UK. In this Friday special, I’ll talk through some aspects of university life that irritate me, and possible avenues for change. This definitely isn’t isolated to my particular institution, as I believe that these issues crop up often at other universities too.
Most universities encourage students to live in housing owned my them (or a partner company) which is either located on campus or in specially built apartment blocks in towns and cities. There are also independent student accommodation providers which operate in university areas, offering a similar provision. Now, I’ve got nothing against halls, as I’ve found them to be pretty good value for money, easy to live in and less stressful than living with others in a shared house. However, the way that universities portray halls of residences as essential to a first year experience does bother me. I know it’s a selling tactic, as universities make a large sum from students paying rent in their accommodation villages, but implying that you’re likely to miss out on key experiences as a fresher comes at the risk of alienating other students.
For example, if you arrive at your university through clearing, student halls may be difficult to access as rooms have already been booked by students who had accepted that university as their firm choice. That comes with the territory for sure, and it’s something worth bearing in mind if you’re considering clearing. That still doesn’t mean that you’ll miss out though, and I feel like many students are being pressured into choosing university housing for fears of not fitting in or finding friends quickly.
A solution of this is of course to build more housing so that there is enough for everybody, but that doesn’t solve the problem of affordability for some students. University halls are continually upgraded and refurbished to follow the demand, which is leaning towards en-suite rooms that share a kitchen with less people. As upgrades occur, prices inevitably increase, leading to less accommodation being affordable to students who are looking for rooms with shared facilities with a lower price tag. This leads to students having to take out contracts for rooms in halls which they can’t really afford, adding to the stress of moving to a new place and figuring out university life.
Another aspect of this is that students may instead decide to live in the community during their first year, which leaves them at the mercy of rogue landlords. Not being able to view a property and being pressured to sign a lease may result in housing that is substandard or dangerous. Landlords in student towns have bad reputations, mainly because they often seek to make heavy profits while not providing adequate housing for their tenants. It’s hard to get anything done, as going through the courts is a long process that is made over-complicated and difficult to navigate, leaving students on their own.
Overall, housing for students needs more legal protection, especially after the issues students have faced during the pandemic, and landlords need tighter regulation. Again, this has the potential to drive up prices if landlords are required to be vetted or sign to an agency, but in this case I think it would be a worthwhile trade-off if students were kept safe.
Casual sexism, racism and misogyny
I’m cautious to talk about race, as I recognise my privilege as a straight, white woman, but racism definitely occurs within universities. As for sexism, misogyny and marginalisation, I believe that they are as present within university culture as they are in the outside world. University is commonly perceived as a safe ‘bubble’, where parents can let their children have a taste of freedom while being assured that they will be kept safe, but in reality there are more dangers than people think. Casual sexism is an issue I’ve frequently encountered, most commonly from young men who have no idea how to appropriately address and speak to a woman. This can cause upset, but just forces you to grow a thicker skin over time rather than addressing the root of the problem.
Universities are notoriously vocal about their commitment to anti-bullying policies, as well as protecting minorities on campus, but the casual acts of racism and sexism that occur in the bars, classrooms and common-rooms of campus are hard to stamp out. Sticking up a few posters that advertise a safe space to talk about bullying isn’t enough anymore, and more proactive action needs to be taken to protect student’s wellbeing.
This may be the first time where students openly encounter these issues which may lead to a culture shock, but that doesn’t mean they’re acceptable. It’s important to call out inappropriate behaviour, but that can be difficult if you’ve only just met someone, especially if you have to live with them for the next year. Striking a balance between friendship and honesty is difficult, but I’ve found that if someone behaves poorly, you’re better keeping them at an arm’s length rather than indirectly encouraging their behaviour by saying nothing. If you encounter a situation like this, don’t be afraid to speak to a warden or someone at student services to get some advice, and remember that you don’t have to be best friends with everyone you meet or that you live with. Just having mutual respect for each other’s space, belongings and schedule is usually enough to enjoy a comfortable living experience.
The class divide
Students don’t talk about money enough, and that’s probably because we weren’t equipped with the tools or language in mainstream education. Apart from reforming the teaching of finance and real-world skills, encouraging an open dialogue about money will go a significant way to making everyone more comfortable. People attend university for a variety of reasons, but the majority are hoping that it will improve their job prospects and lead to a better standard of living in the future. However, there are a select number of students who already have a future lined up, usually at a family business, or are simply attending university for the experience as they won’t struggle to find good employment due to their social class. It is true that life is about who you know, and these people will have all the necessary contacts they need to be successful in life, so university is a stepping stone towards that lifestyle. Depending on where you attend university, these students may be a majority of the population, or a smaller number that isolate themselves into an exclusive group. Living alongside young people like these is a hilarious eye opener, as they often have never faced the prospect of having to work for a living, or even cook their own meals. I’ve seen students struggle with doing their laundry, or having no idea how to clean a bathroom, and it stands as a stark reminder of the multitude of personal circumstances that students hail from.
Not talking about money because of the pressure to conform or make friends can result in students overspending, sometimes getting into serious debt due to a lack of knowledge about how credit cards work or that you have to pay back your overdraft. Money management does come with time, but when living alongside rich students, it can be common to feel like you need to upgrade your lifestyle to fit in with them. However, this is definitely not the case with everyone, and some of my closer friends are from wealthier backgrounds! It’s all about the personality of a person, so it may be a trial and error process when making friends.
Universities need to do more to encourage open discussions about money, and this past year has shown the perilous situations some students can find themselves in when their source of income is taken away. Thankfully, hardship grants for rent and technology are becoming openly visible for students to access, and long may this continue. The class divide is an inevitable part of life, but being truthful to your budget can make your lifestyle not only an authentic representation of you, but a way of having an affordable university experience.
I feel like this probably doesn’t need much explanation, and I feel like exasperation towards collaborative projects transcends most of the UK education system. Having to work with people you don’t know, when you’re all on different schedules and all want different outcomes is an essential facet of university life that students are forced to navigate. On the whole, there are still the few people who do all the work, the couple that coast along doing the bare minimum and that one guy that never shows up. Group work doesn’t change that much whatever your age, and it seems to be a way of making students work together to vary the types of assignments that have to be submitted.
Personally, I only had two group projects that actually counted towards my grade, as the majority were informal ways of encouraging contributions to seminars. The first was a disaster, as it was difficult to gather everyone together, we had problems with the software, and one girl was a complete nightmare and refused to work with us. I ended up having to do a heavy proportion of the work as the grade was shared and I didn’t want it to reflect badly on me. The second project was better, as there was only one girl who didn’t contribute anything, and we shared the work out fairly and everyone did their bit. However, I think that was purely luck, as a few of us knew each other by this point which made the whole process considerably easier.
In my opinion, universities need to take a hard look at content that requires group work and make a concerted effort to make it as easy as possible to complete. Offering a workshop on how to work together collaboratively, along with ideas of how to delegate and run the task as a group would be ideal! Obviously, universities expect students to be able to work as a group by this stage of their lives, but I think an hour of teaching on this would be invaluable to everyone involved. I’m sure that lecturers don’t enjoy getting bombarded with emails complaining about a particular group member, so a bit of proactive teaching may solve some issues. Also, providing students with space to give feedback about their experience could help universities improve these projects over time. My university did this on both occasions, requiring us to write a peer review, a reflective essay and filling out an evaluation of the module.
Overall, university is a transformative experience, but there are definitely bumps in the road. Making campuses safe, encouraging freedom of expression whilst calling out sexism and racism should be a priority of all universities, in order to create a great environment for their students. Thank you for joining me for this Friday Special, and I hope that it’s given you some food for thought. A blog is coming later this month concerning group projects, as I thought it would be worth sharing some of my personal experiences working collaboratively at university, so look out for that coming soon.