Clare College Bridge, Cambridge, UK

The benefits of learning from home

The British model of a residential “university experience” alienates and impoverishes students

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In Britain, a prime motivation for going to university is to go away to study, to up sticks and enjoy a “student experience” far from your family and roots. The experience is sold in Britain for £28,000 a pop, and to those from abroad at sums north of £60,000. And that’s just the tuition — even a home student is spending £60,000 over three years when living costs are considered. The only product more expensive in the UK is housing, where the average first time buyer’s deposit is, by an act of cosmic symmetry, also about £60,000. 

Much has been made of higher education’s dubious benefits to recipients’ future earnings, with results varying widely depending on universities and courses. But the university experience is not really about income enhancement. 

Instead it is a rite of passage in which students leave home (preferably by some distance) to detach themselves from their parents and communities and the norms that go with them to embrace a cosmopolitan, open-minded, softly hedonistic and progressive future. 

The student experience as a myth has many origins, but one of its deepest roots is that of Oxbridge. Cambridge and Oxford, having educated so much of England’s cultural as well as political elite, have an outsized influence on literary and media depictions of university life. The model of students, many of them from humble backgrounds, encountering elite institutions is a crucial foundation story. 

This was certainly how 1920s Oxford is presented in Brideshead Revisited, where protagonist Charles Ryder describes encountering, during his carefree years at the university, “that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.” 

The university experience is, of course, intensely linked with sex

That low door through which an undergraduate is granted the leisure to cultivate life, liberty and the pursuit of knowledge leads not just into Oxbridge’s enchanted gardens. Most British universities seek to beguile with their own version of that awakening or escapism. There is the campus world of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, in which the formerly working class religious Howard and Barbara discover Marxism and polyamory at the same time as they acquire bourgeois status and economic security when Howard becomes a university lecturer. 

The university experience is, of course, intensely linked with sex. The opening of higher education to women as well as men, followed by the expansion of universities to a greater portion of the population, was a key part of the sexual revolution. Where once sex was curbed by a pattern of life in which young people might (and young women in particular) move directly from the family home into marriages, university opened an obvious path to a new sexual freedom.

The protests of 1968 were sparked in part by Parisian activists complaining that they were not allowed to visit the rooms of female students. Trouble broke out when the student activist, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, interrupted the opening of a university swimming pool by François Missoffe, the French Minister of Youth and Sports, complaining to the minister that he was sexually frustrating the students. Missoffe suggested that Cohn-Bendit should quell his passion by jumping in the pool, to which Cohn-Bendit replied that this sentiment was what one would expect of a fascist regime. 

Attitudes to sex — partly driven by universities themselves — would change and make this dispute seem quaint, but the sexual revolution continues to evolve on campus: straightforward permissiveness with sexual appetites being given free reign has long since given way to a multiplicity of new sexual revolts, many of them incompatible. 

Part of the revolution is about the search for new frontiers of toleration

Much of university life is still busy with the last sexual revolution of course, and may well be stuck in it for some time. Waugh’s rather Edwardian notion of homosexual affairs bringing romantic escape for educated young men burdened by the demands of Victorian morality has long gone. A more prosaic erotic escapism, one that owes more to popular culture, is still the default norm, in which the youth have encounters that start with sticky-floored nightclubs and end with awkward awakenings in student halls or squalid bedsits. 

Whether people authentically enjoy the average British university student experience, with its grim concrete blocks, ratty little rooms in halls of residence, mandatory binge drinking and sparsely attended lectures is a matter for the epistemologists. But pleasure is not really the point of a rite of passage, as students are furnished with enough wild anecdotes to populate their best man speeches, office smalltalk and dating app banter. 

But even in the most cheerfully conventional of academic settings, the new sexual revolution is making waves, spreading via social media, and increasingly promoted and enforced by university administrations and student unions. 

Part of the revolution is about the search for new frontiers of toleration: alternative ways to distinguish and define yourself apart from conventional sexuality. Whether it is queering the curriculum, sex positivity about kinks and “sex work”, or the omnipresent trans issue, the latest expressions of loving subversion are being unearthed, invented and promoted. 

But perhaps the most urgent revolution on campus is a form of counter-revolution, because, as it turns out, the first sexual revolution wasn’t all good news. 

As engines of the revolution, universities, packed full of naive and unsupervised young students, were a Ground Zero for the problems that sparked the #MeToo movement. Whereas in ‘68 students protested for their right to sex, the new sexual revolution was sparked in 2014 when a Columbia student, Emma Sulkowicz, carried the mattress she claimed to have been raped on around her university campus.

The dark side of the sexual revolution was now on display; we knew it was there, but somehow it had gone from a matter of bad individuals and the price we all paid for sexual liberty, to a scandal that cried out for justice.

But the new sexual awakening isn’t an incomplete counter-revolution. You’re not allowed to ask hard questions about how we got here, or dare to wonder whether the culture of binge drinking, drug taking and guilt-free hookups might contribute to sexual abuse and predation. 

One in 25 students are engaged in some form of sex work

Though unregulated lists of offending males are drawn up, unchecked accusations freely shared on social media, and vague accusations of “rape culture” are thrown around, there is a certain lack of specificity about what would change matters. There are serious feminist thinkers of course, long preceding #MeToo, who have consistently campaigned against a definable rape culture, seeking to curb pornography and prostitution, and get sexual predators prosecuted. 

But those voices have been marginalised and demonised by many young feminists in universities, precisely because of their very practical commitment to single-sex spaces and opposition to so-called “sex work”. The very same students who rail against sexual abuse in universities fight to defend the “right” of students to participate in prostitution and pornography. 

This is the dark heart of the student experience and the sexual revolution. Just as wild nights at university form a sort of social cachet and shared experience, so too do mental illness, trauma and victimhood. 

Cut off from home for the first time, university is a place where many get into trouble. Tendencies towards depression, anxiety and eating disorders explode into serious problems. Students experiment with drugs, alcohol and sex. Some develop addictions. Others find themselves sexually exploited. 

These experiences too can be romanticised, and form, darkly and perversely, a part of the myth of higher education. As costs spiral, and the social exclusivity of university is diluted, the ritual grows ever less gentle, and becomes something more like a kind of hazing, in which cohorts are bonded and shaped by shared pain and humiliation. The natural and healthy impulse to draw meaning and narrative sense out of painful experiences can be twisted in the context of a dominant romantic myth, to something destructive. 

With student discourse about universities turned harshly critical, you might expect a greater hesitancy to enrol. But it hasn’t happened. Not even the pandemic, which added a whole new lockdown-based trauma to the others and has left many universities understaffed and part-functioning, seems to have dampened enthusiasm. 

You took control of your life by severing your ties

In 2019 a survey by Save the Student UK revealed that one in 25 students are engaged in some form of sex work, predominantly through selling pornographic photos and videos online through sites like OnlyFans. The number of students involved had doubled since 2017. The authors of the report suggested that increasing costs were driving the trend. 

Part of this picture is a self-fulfilling logic whereby employers demand a university degree, and so young people will put themselves through the ritual of university, even if they have to sell their bodies to manage it. But we also shouldn’t ignore the power of dark romanticism, which can be as powerful as life-affirming fantasies of freedom and pleasure. 

Self harm was always, however covertly, an aspect of the romanticised student experience. Like Pip in Great Expectations, you took control of your life by severing your ties, and going to war with your own origins. Even the children of the privileged really became privileged in the modern myth by denying their origins even as they repeated them. 

This dark romanticism suffuses the film, Dead Poets Society. In the opening sequence, boys bear banners with the words “Tradition”, “Honour”, “Discipline” and “Excellence”. But the charismatic teacher John Keating, played by Robin Williams, upends the values of the school and encourages the students to live by the maxim “carpe diem” instead. 

The boys re-found a secret club known as the Dead Poets Society, where they learn to express themselves, seduce girls and follow their dreams regardless of expectation and duty. One of his students, Neil, defies his father to pursue acting and is pulled out of the school — in a bout of adolescent despair he kills himself, and Keating is fired. 

The film is much lauded, and the obvious message is that denying the self-expression of young people kills even more than just their spirit. The conservative teachers and parents are portrayed as the narrow-minded villains, enslaved to convention, and determined to scapegoat Keating for their failings. But Neil really did die because of his liberal teacher’s actions. He was taught to live in the moment, do what felt right, and not consider the consequences. His suicide was fully consistent with a militant desire to live only on his own terms, the very ethic at the centre of the film. 

Pleasure is increasingly identified with pain

The sense of the name “Dead Poets Society” is double-edged. In one scene Keating points to an old class portrait and notes that everyone in it is dead, telling his pupils that they are all “food for worms” so they must “seize the day”. Part of the point of the film’s and the secret society’s title is that the past is dead and irrelevant, but the other sense is that even the participants are dead, and only alive in as much as they can fully pursue their desires and appetites. 

At the heart of the modern academic myth is a sort of left Nietzscheanism, a nihilistic expressionism and a dark romanticism, which is in love with alienation, death and self-harm. Pleasure is increasingly identified with pain, with overindulgence and self-harm both vectors for maximal self-expression. 

As strong as this story is, and as heavily exported as it has been, it is more culturally specific than we realise or allow. In much of Europe, and even in many parts of America where the myth originated, the university experience is different. The non-residential university is far more often the norm, with many students commuting to university from home, or returning to their families on the weekend. 

The 2019 HEPI report “Somewhere to live” noted that over 80 percent of full-time students left home for study. Nearly half of these students lived in purpose-built halls and 52 per cent lived in private rented accommodation. Meanwhile more than a third of European students live in their parental home and only 18 per cent reside in student accommodation, and in America nearly 40 percent of students live at home and 77 percent attend college in their home state. 

Our love of residential universities is big business too — student accommodation is a great money-spinner for developers, with the cost of student accommodation more than doubling since 2000 and rising by 16 per cent since the pandemic. Yet British students continue to opt to travel at rates far in excess of comparable countries, fulfilling an ingrained expectation that identifies mobility with success and personal fulfilment.

Of course, the status that students are hungry for, and the wider intellectual and cultural horizons they want to access, should be open to them. Yet moving away for a “student experience” rarely gives them what they’re looking. For many, their aims would be better achieved through lifelong learning on a local basis, with education something that enriches communities and knits them together, rather than sundering young people from their roots, to which many never return. 

Residential universities will always have their place, but it’s a model that works best for truly elite institutions capable of giving the level of pastoral support available including high staff to student ratios, as with the Oxbridge system, and where residence really does confer an advantage to a gifted student. 

As well as the practical business of remaking universities into local and rooted institutions, we need to reorient our imaginative world in the same way. The deep romance of place and locality, of the forgotten and the unnoticed, is a powerful resource in English-language culture and literature. Against the prejudices of the moderns, it is also a far more critically freighted and subtle tradition than that of rupture and revolution. λ

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