Posted tagged ‘student life’

Away from home

March 5, 2018

Some 44 years ago I became an undergraduate student at Trinity College Dublin. On my first day as a student, I took a guided tour of the institution organised by the Student Representative Council (as it was then called).

I started chatting with two other students. One of them was self-assured, came from a solid middle class background, and told me he had taken his first major decision as a student: he would join the Geography Society (which had developed a reputation for field trips that involved many things apart from geography). The other was a young woman from a working class area of Dublin, who had come to TCD despite her parents’ misgivings about its Protestant history; she would live at home so that, she told me, her parents could ‘keep an eye on her’.

I don’t remember the names of either student (if indeed we exchanged names at all), but I sometimes wonder whether and how university life changed them. I fear a little that it may not have totally evened out the social gap between them. Or maybe it did, but the chances of that would have been greater if the second of the two managed to move out of the parental home at some point during her studies.

It is almost a cliché to say that the university experience should be more than just one of studying. It has a vital social dimension, which is about much more than having fun (though that, too, is good). That social dimension can be harnessed most effectively when students move away from their parental home and mix with other students outside of formal teaching and learning. One website offers 18 reasons (a good few of them tongue-in-cheek) why living away from home during university studies is good.

Now in a recent study the Sutton Trust has found that a majority of British students live at or near their homes, but that this choice is often driven by social class, with students from state schools significantly more likely to choose to stay at home than those who have been privately educated. These patterns are also reinforced by regional considerations, with students from less prosperous regions making choices that keep them there during their studies.

If this is a problem helping to sustain social inequality, it may not be easy to find a quick solution, as the forces sustaining this pattern are financial, structural and cultural. But it is important that higher education is a social leveller and does not help to perpetuate disadvantage. The Sutton Trust makes a number of recommendations, including the provision of targeted funding and a greater effort by universities to structure learning in a way that will help students living at home to achieve greater independence. These recommendations should be taken seriously by government and higher education institutions and should lead to appropriate action.


University life: crazy societies

July 21, 2011

One of the joys of the student experience (though one that is also open to staff) is the availability of university clubs and societies. Student life should not be solely about studying, but should also include membership of such associations that provide a different perspective, or involve other activities. I have always had a certain fondness for some of the zanier options. In DCU during one year we had the extraordinarily successful ‘Murder She Wrote Society‘, which ostensibly celebrated the rather cheesy TV series starring Angela Lansbury.

But elsewhere there are even more way-out options, some of which are celebrated on this website for female students. So how about the ‘Happiness Club‘ of Northwestern University, which just wants to ‘make people feel happier’. Or, bless them, the ‘Concrete Canoe Club‘ of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which (you guessed it) goes to water in canoes made of concrete, and wins competitions in them. Or the ‘Moustache Club‘ of Carleton College, which – er – celebrates moustaches.

But actually, all of these add something to the variety of the student experience, and probably provide some balance to the more serious aspects of education. In the end, what is important is that students benefit from learning that will, at least at times, go beyond the formal curriculum. Everything, even Harvard University’s ‘Tiddlywinks Society‘, is to be celebrated.

Please talk

July 23, 2008

Earlier this year I had the privilege of being present to support the launch by all the Irish universities of the ‘Please Talk‘ campaign. The purpose of this is to encourage students to talk to their friends, family, counsellors and faculty about any problems they may have. For many, a university can be a lonely place; before they get to us, they will usually have been in a school setting where much more attention is paid to them individually, and where social networks are highly developed. But when they get to university, they are expected to be self-motivated and autonomous; many thrive in that environment, but for some the transition is difficult.

Even later in their studies, some students may find that they are facing worries or concerns – whether in their studies or in their personal lives – that become a burden for them. The ‘Please Talk’ campaign aims to make them aware of how they can access people who will be able to offer them support and listen to their problems and issues. 

In fact, not long after arriving in DCU I took the view that being accessible to those who need help is a vital part of my role also. Every year I write a letter to all incoming undergraduate students to reassure them that if they need advice and support they will have access to help, and inviting them to email me directly if they are unsure about whom to contact. A number of them do, and I am usually able to get them in touch with someone who can help – or else I will talk to them myself. Similarly, university staff with personal issues get priority in my calendar.

My point here is not to suggest that I am doing anything special – it’s just my job. Rather, it is that we all still need the personal assurance that someone is always willing to talk with us and to support us during difficult times. Large organisations – and all universities are large organisations – have special responsibilities not to let anyone get lost in the system and find themselves in despair.

So, to be true to my claims, my email address is Please talk.