Freshers’ Week opens up the life-long learning journey

My daughter Katie starts her Freshers’ Week today, ahead of a three-year BA Business Management degree course at Sheffield University. The serendipity is that she’ll be studying in the same Management School building as me (albeit it’s recently been totally rebuilt), and frequent the same pubs (favourite: The Fat Cat as I did 1981-1984, and latterly on sporadic reunions.

Freshers’ Week is jam-packed with socialising, but while partying is certainly a rite of passage, going to University is not just about the parties. You’ll have a fulfilling few days that will set the tone for the next three years, and it has more to offer new students than a week-long hangover.

Once the car’s been unpacked and the tearful relatives waved off you’ll be an official university student, surrounded by unfamiliar buildings and new faces. If you’re still full of trepidation, reflect on how much you’ve achieved so far and how hard you worked to get there.

The next three years promise to be some of the best of your life. University offers bars, kitchens and corridors for passionate debate and discussion and are a chance to learn about every aspect of life, both academic and social, so try to head off optimistically and explore!

I was nervous when I started university at Sheffield back in 1981. A new life, in a new town, which I had only visited once before. This was my first step on the road to an independent life, trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. It was like standing on the edge of a massive ocean, waiting to dive in. But I look back and I know it was one of the best experiences of my life.

I grew up more than I ever thought possible, both intellectually, socially and emotionally. I had a fair idea of what I want to do with my life, even if I didn’t have a five-point plan. I met some of the best friends I’ve ever made, and still in touch some 30 years later, even if they are 3000 miles away. The Haddock Brains, a Clash-inspired band we formed one day in the library, never did get in the way of future lives in accounting, economics and law – more’s the pity!

I know that those starting university today have to worry about paying £9,000 in tuition fees and fund living out of a totally inadequate maintenance loan. I firmly believe that allowing that level of tuition fees was one of the biggest mistakes of the current government, and a decision that may well be the death knell of Nick Clegg’s political career.

I know that university isn’t for everyone and the government has to invest either in employment or in other means of education and training for young people, but if people want to go to university, they shouldn’t have to risk racking up massive debts in order to do it.

Higher education accessible to all is crucial to the achievement of a fair, free and open society. It helps people gain the skills, knowledge and aspiration to move their life forward, and develops their intellectual capabilities so that they can reach beyond their expectations. It boosts their self-esteem so that they have the confidence to challenge conformity, and ultimately it improves the productivity and innovation of the nation. Above all, it widens people’s horizons and opens up new choices and experiences to them.

Anyway, I’ll step down from my soapbox at the Students Union meeting now! Looking back, what did I learn from my three-years at University? Here are my nuggets of state-funded learning:

Laundry machines aren’t rocket science One of the more daunting aspects of university is the practical side of living alone. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to do laundry. No matter how nice you are to the machines, they are going to growl and they will occasionally swallow your money. There will be several buttons on the dashboard that you never press. Or even understand. Just wash old clothes first and you’ll soon catch on.

Cooking’s a doddle really Similarly, cuisine. It is handy to know how to cook pasta when coming to university, but not essential. In fact, don’t worry if your repertoire doesn’t stretch that far. Mixing odd combinations of food quickly gives you an appreciation of fine food and you find your preferences with ease. Corn beef hash ‘extra’ was my favourite.

Careful with your stuff If you leave your kitchen utensils out on the side, you are saying that these are public property and can be used freely by all in the flat. Whether plates, pots, pans, or the cheese grater, the unwritten code of borrowing states that these can be appropriated by whoever finds the equipment. If you’re slightly OCD about finding your spoons in the same drawer as you left them, or you don’t want to play the ultimate end-of-term treasure hunt to collect said kitchen items from various rooms, you may be best investing in a cupboard lock.

Hair of the dog is not actually a workable solution You will probably be spending an astonishing amount of your time drinking in your first term. That’s fine, as nobody will bat an eyelid, but do remember to take a few nights off. Fun as it can be, not every social activity is improved by alcohol.

Do not leave your work until the absolute last minute This isn’t what you want to hear right now, but amid all the revelry, you do still have a degree to get. As with everything in life, the right work-life balance is up to you, but indulging in too much of either will catch up with you in the end. If you save all your essays up until the last minute, your last two weeks of term are going to be rotten. On the other hand, try not to spend every waking hour in the library fretting about a First until your final year.

You will not have as much sex as you might be hoping for Freshers’ Week, as everyone knows, is a roiling hotbed of constant, regrettable sexual activity. Except, of course, that it’s not. This isn’t San Francisco in 1969 – it’s Sheffield in 2013, and it’s probably raining.

Eat a salad once in a while That sudden switch into a booze-rich lifestyle of intense partying and long lie-ins plays havoc with any previously trim waistline. The freedom of living alone for the first time is also the freedom to devour chips every day. You can limit the damage by eating a salad and getting up off your arse every now and again to walk to a lecture.

Try not to spend your entire loan in the first two weeks You will go out a lot. In fact, you might never party as hard again in your life, but it’s an expensive habit, and costs mount up – even at student union prices. This is probably the first time you’ve ever had thousands of pounds lying around in your bank account, and the temptation to go large will be hard to resist. You owe it to yourself to be sensible. You’ll still have to feed yourself in 10 weeks’ time and you’ve only got bread crusts to toast and that tin of creamed mushrooms left.

But of course, the real reason you’re at University is to continue, if not accelerate, your life long learning journey. Let’s define what learning is. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skill through education and experience. Our ability to learn sets us apart from the animals, which is handy really as according to genetics we share 98.5% of our genes with chimpanzees. Perhaps this is not such a significant matter – but we also share about 60% of our genes with tomatoes!

Every piece of learning you do to reinvent and update your knowledge allows you to grow from where you are today to where you want to go. Learning is beneficial emotionally, financially, physically and socially. You can’t open a book without learning something. I’ve always been minded by the Thomas Huxley quote: try to learn something about everything and everything about something.

Learning is my passion and it’s something that impacts me nearly every day. I am constantly reading about new things, taking cuttings from magazines, spending hours browsing on the Internet or expounding on existing knowledge. I just want to stay ahead of the game. Some of this I am fortunate to do as it pays me for a living, but even when I am not learning, I am applying skills or knowledge, even if it is just playing chess or a Sudoku puzzle, in order to exercise my mind.

Learning is the key to achieving our full potential, recognising that lifelong learning is a journey with no end in sight and that no one can ever have all the answers – although Katie will tell you I sometimes try to bluff that I do. In order for you to create the new results you want in your life, learning is a path you must be willing to take. It provides the opportunities to continually expand your capacity. When you change your thoughts your change your results.

But back to Katie, and Sheffield. My degree was in Accounting & Maths – I was obsessed with numbers, so the degree was a real passion. In Freshers’ week in 1981 I recall eating pizza for the first time, discovering Theakston’s Old Peculiar at the aforementioned Fat Cat, meeting a bloke called Anders from Norway who got homesick and went back home after just a week, joining the university rugby club which had a ladies team, and falling in love with an American Economist called Paul A. Samuelson. I hope Katie has a similar fulfilling experience – and I hope Samuelson’s Economics is still on the curriculum reading list!

University can teach you life skills and gives you opportunity, but it can’t teach you sense, nor give you understanding. Sense and understanding are produced within your own reflection and when I get some sense I’ll let you know. University unlocked my appetite for learning, the opportunity it offered was the thrill of great clarity wrestling with the endless problems and delights of standing on the shoulder of giants.

After three-years, I graduated, and at the graduation ceremony wearing a daft hat and gown, unrolled my degree scroll displaying a long declaration in Latin affixed with a red seal proclaiming me a Bachelor of Arts with Honours. Imagine working for three years to obtain a piece of paper I could hardly read.

As I stare down the barrel of my thirtieth anniversary of graduation in 2014, Katie, I’m almost jealous, and the brilliant three years you have ahead of you. Make the most of it. Welcome to Sheffield. Welcome to university. Welcome to learning. You’re going to love it. It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts, and remember, learning never exhausts the mind but dancing in the Students Union until 4am will.

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