Analysis: Just a chip off the old block?

July 5, 2002

In our second article marking the tenth year of new universities, Claire Sanders talks to parents and children who attended the same institution - pre and post-92.

Bill and Steven Marshall

Bill Marshall enrolled at Bristol Polytechnic in 1972. Thirty years later his son Steven enrolled at the polytechnic's successor - the University of the West of England.

Mr Marshall is now finance director of UWE. "I was actually responsible for selling off the poly building in which I was taught," he said. "Rather a strange feeling."

When he joined, Bristol Polytechnic was just two years old, and he was one of the first intake of students on the business studies degree. "We felt rather special," he said, "a bit better than the HND people."

He was a local boy, his father dug graves at the nearby cemetery and his mother worked occasionally as a secretary in a slaughterhouse.

Mr Marshall went to grammar school. "There was never any question of someone like me applying to Oxbridge, instead I went for Bath and Exeter universities and Bristol Polytechnic. People at the universities certainly assumed that I would choose them over the poly."

But Mr Marshall was attracted by the course at Bristol. The degree was four years long, with the third year spent in a work placement. "I worked in a bookmakers and loved it because I could use my maths to advantage," he said. He also worked there in the holidays - and is still keen on the horses.

Mr Marshall's son Steven has chosen a similar course. He has just completed the first year of a computing for real-time systems degree. He, too, will spend his third year in industry. And like his father it was the course that attracted him to the institution. "Nowhere offered a course that combined study of hardware and software as this does," he said.

He does not yet know how many of his fellow students will make it into the next year but the dropout rate is unlikely to match that of his father's course.

"At the end of the first year, 25 of the 45 students on the degree failed their exams and were not allowed to continue," Mr Marshall said.

He blames the teaching, which he thinks compares unfavourably with that offered today. "The polytechnic had a local authority feel. We had about 30 taught hours a week, which went down to 20 in the last year. We just sat and made notes or received handouts. In the exam we were expected to show original thought and it came as a surprise to a lot of us."

Steven has to complete six assignments a year as well as end-of-year exams. "We have to think for ourselves right from the beginning and be responsible for our own learning," he said.

But contact time with tutors is less than in his father's day and some of the lectures are delivered to 200 students. "Mine was a small course, we often saw the director, which is very unlikely for students today. We felt we knew the staff well," Mr Marshall said.

Mr Marshall believes that the buildings and teaching equipment are infinitely better today. "Many of the buildings were not plastered as this saved enough money to build an extra room. I used to use Bristol University library," he said. "The polytechnic library was in a few houses opposite the college - they'd knocked a few walls down and stuck books and a photocopier in there."

UWE today boasts a state-of-the-art library and computer facilities.

But the vocational stress has remained. "There was a perception of polytechnics in those days as second-class institutions," Mr Marshall said. "But when I left, I had so many job offers I could pick and choose. Today we offer 4,000 of our students work placements and our students get jobs. There has been no mission drift."

The position on research has not changed, either. "In the old poly days, there was no money for research. Today the University of Bristol can blow us out of the water in terms of the funding council money they receive for research, " Mr Marshall said.

What has clearly changed is student funding. Mr Marshall received a full grant and lived at home. "I had no financial problems. I'd never had any money anyway - nothing changed," he said.

Steven is also living at home. But unlike his father he has no grant, and he has had to take out a loan and pay fees. "I know I'll be in debt when I finish my course but I should be able to get a good job and pay it off in a couple of years," he said.

Mr Marshall does not remember the students as particularly political. "I vividly recall one year the student union advertising that it was going to give all its funds to the IRA. Turned out this was just a hoax to get people to attend the AGM," he said.

Before Steven enrolled at the university there were protests about student fees, but not much since. "I have very little to do with the student union," Steven said.

Mr Marshall believes that UWE has been able to retain the best of its polytechnic ethos, while substantially improving teaching and facilities. The importance of the ending of the binary divide is perhaps best summed up by Steven. "I just would not have applied if this had been called a polytechnic - I wanted to go to university," he said.


Ian and Jennie King

In 1975, Ian King enrolled on a four-year day-release degree in electrical and electronic engineering at Oxford Polytechnic. "I was working for Oxfordshire Area Health Authority at the Radcliffe Infirmary, and the National Health Service paid my fees and encouraged me," he said.

He attended a secondary modern in Aylesbury and left school at 16 to go to work for the Eastern Electricity Board. He did an apprenticeship at the board, eventually obtaining a distinction in a higher national diploma at Watford College of Advanced Technology. "At the time my lecturers pushed me to do a degree, and two or three years later that is what I did," he said.

As the health authority was paying for the degree, he was limited in his choice of where to go. "It had to be local," he said.

He had to make up the day that he was allowed off work by working two evenings and Saturday mornings. He studied from 9am to 9pm on his day release and in the evenings and on Sundays.

He was married at the time, and in the last year of his degree his daughter was born. "It was hard but I did not go into debt," he s aid. "Immediately on completing the degree, I was given a major promotion - it was well worth it."

He enjoyed the degree and argues that the standard was high. "Maths was taught to a very high level and we did physics in great depth. If I won the Lottery I would go back and study quantum physics - it has always fascinated me," he said.

Again the dropout rate was high. "I remember we started off with about 28 people, and by the final year that was down to 15," he said.

The first in his family to get a degree, he says the majority of the students were "bright working class" although there were some more middle-class students.

Like Mr Marshall, he has done a full circle and ended up back at Brookes. He joined the university in 1998 as director of estates and facilities. "As estates director I am in a good position to judge the difference between the old polytechnic buildings and the new ones," he said.

"The 1960s buildings are in a poor state of repair. They were built cheaply. The modern buildings, such as the new media centre, are infinitely better."

In 1996, Mr King's daughter, Jennie, enrolled as a student on a history of art and business administration and management degree at Brookes. They overlapped for a year.

"It was OK having my dad at the university until he got a bike and started wearing leathers, then it got a bit embarrassing," Ms King said.

It was the modular structure of the course - Oxford Polytechnic/ Brookes was a pioneer in this - that attracted Ms King. "I wanted to do art history, but I also wanted to be employable, so I took business modules as well."

She worked part time throughout her degree, working for her last year at the Museum of Oxford. "This was incredibly useful because I did my dissertation on the role of museum shops - whether they should be mainly commercial or educational. Working in a museum shop gave me a bit of an edge and I carried on working there after I did my degree," she said.

With the support of her parents and through working she avoided taking out a loan and getting into debt. "I lived in halls of residence in my first year," she said. "I wanted to be near home but not live at home."

The halls are being rebuilt under one of the largest private finance initiatives in the university sector. "The new halls are going to be so much better," Ms King said. "I wish my dad had got on to it before."

Overall, she describes the facilities at Brookes as good and the lecturers as excellent. "They were really enthusiastic," she said.

She left with a 2:1 and has gone on to do an MSc in cultural tourism management at Greenwich University as well as work throughout the world.

"My degree definitely made it easy for me to get good jobs," she said. "I don't see that the university has lost any of its vocational strengths."

Mr King agrees. "It is the broad base of the modular degrees that attracts employers," he said. But he regrets the change in student funding over the years, even though his daughter was protected. "Students are worse off financially today and that is a shame."


Sheila Harvey and Victoria Oxley

In 1960 Sheila Brown, now Sheila Harvey, enrolled on a national diploma in design at Nottingham College of Art and Design. "I was part of the last year to take the diploma," she said. "Courses and institutions were changing fast."

By 1966 the college had been linked with the regional college as a polytechnic designate. In 1970, Trent Polytechnic was born.

Ms Harvey, the daughter of an ambulance driver, was the first in her family to go on to higher education. "I lived at home for my Nottingham years and was always fully supported by my family," she said. "I got a full grant and did not go into debt - compared to today, my financial situation was brilliant."

Her diploma lasted four years. "The first two years were more general and we studied fine art, pottery and fabrics. We then had to take an intermediate exam before going on to a more specialised two years," Ms Harvey said.

"I was surprised when I first went to college at how many upper-class people there were," she said. "I recall a student being bought a new car. That amazed me."

But she said that many of the wealthier students dropped out after two years. "To be honest, I think a lot of them just wanted to be able to say they had been to college. When it got more serious - they left. I remember a big dropout rate."

In her final two years, she studied fine art and machine embroidery. "We were left to our own devices in these last two years, expected to develop our own ideas," she said.

While she loved the fine art, Ms Harvey did not enjoy the machine embroidery. "I still can't look at a needle today without feeling sick. There was not the same flexibility that there is now and you had to stick with things. I made a bad choice and got stuck."

She knew from the minute that she enrolled on her diploma that she wanted to teach. "The course for me was vocational because it prepared me for teaching - although I couldn't teach in a grammar school until I had my degree. But I also loved the art. That was a very strong feeling at the time - a love of the subject. Today, people don't seem to talk in those terms."

Her daughter, Victoria Oxley, who enrolled at Trent Polytechnic Nottingham in 1989 and graduated from Nottingham Trent University in 1994, agrees.

Ms Oxley studied for a higher national certificate for two years in business and finance before starting a degree in business studies in 1991.

"My mother could never understand why I did business studies - her degree and mine seem so far apart," she said. "But today people are much more focused on getting a job - there are definitely more students with a specific career in mind."

Ms Oxley puts some of this seriousness down to the cost of university. "All my studies have been part time," she said. "I left school at 18 and worked as a personnel assistant before deciding to do the HNC and then the degree. I carried on working to keep debts at bay. My parents also paid for my last year. I couldn't have managed without that."

She was offered a job as a programme administrator at NTU before completing her studies. She stayed on after graduation and is now an international marketing assistant.

Ms Oxley's job gives her a particular view of the polytechnic-new university divide. "It is hard enough to sell a new university to overseas students attracted by the old English style of university campus. They just wouldn't be interested in a polytechnic," she said.

The facilities and buildings have improved over time. "I've seen NTU and it is so much better," Ms Harvey said. "Our buildings were very cramped. Full of arts students as well as architects and town planners."

What has been lost though is the optimism and mood of the 1960s. "Just to be at college felt wonderfully liberating. Although my parents supported me I remember aunts and uncles questioning my education as I would only get married and have children anyway. The hardest part was friends from school who had decided not to study - they thought I was ridiculous."

"But the college freed me from all that. I remember the arts balls in particular. They always had a theme and involved fancy dress. Orpheus in underwear sticks in the mind particularly," Ms Harvey said.

"Today it is so much more serious - a different world."

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