One of my students died a few weeks ago. She had an epileptic fit and that was that. I didn't know she suffered from the condition, and when her friend told me, she added that the doctors had said it wasn't life-threatening. Annette was a mature student who never missed a lecture or a seminar. I never suspected when, one Tuesday morning, her seat was empty that she was dead. You don't, do you? She was not the brightest in the group but she was the most determined. She did all the reading, she spoke in class and she was not afraid to ask for help. Beyond that, I knew very little about her.
In fact, I don't know much about any of my students. Several large classes a week mean the average lecturer is lucky if he or she can learn all their names. Annette's death has shocked me into a fresh awareness that students do have lives outside the seminar room and that some of these lives are stormy and wretched. It is hard to care for Aristotle's concept of tragedy when you are getting divorced, your friend is dying of cancer, you've been a victim of abuse or you cannot afford to eat today. When I hear about these things, I'm humbled by the heroic efforts many students make to complete their degrees. It hurts if they're told it's from a third-rate institution.
For these students, and others like them, that precious bit of paper is a sign that they have achieved something in a world where the odds are stacked against them and where the government is sneakily endeavouring to put yet more obstacles in their way. I asked one group whether they would still have come to university had they been forced to pay top-up fees. "No!" they cried. But why come to university now? Why burden themselves with a £12,000 debt?
The young ones want a better life than their parents had and they think a degree will give them that. I had this brought home to me by a student who said that if she was just going to get marks in the low 50s, there was no point in her staying at university. As a single mother, she wasn't paying for an education but for a 2:1.
Mature students have a different attitude. Most of them are women who are reasonably settled in life. Those who want to study English come to university because they want to know something about literature with a capital "L". Peter Widdowson, whose 1982 book Re-reading English sparked the most famous shoot-out since the OK Corral in the letters pages of The London Review of Books , tells the story of how a mature student interrupted him in his routine demolition of the canon. "It's all right for you," the student fumed, "you've had the opportunity to read these books, I haven't and that's what I've come to university to do."
The number of mature students has fallen since the introduction of tuition fees, and although English is still taught in new universities some, such as Luton, have ditched the subject because in these hard times it is just not viable. And that's a shame because the very people who will be denied the opportunity to study English in the future come from the same class as those who were denied it in the past. The door opened a little way, but it's closing again now.
Robert Tressell repeatedly makes the point in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists that the highest achievements of civilisation should be available to all. But that might make people think. It's a nuisance that they do anyway, so you don't want to encourage it. Mature students come to university wanting something more than is available in the wider culture. Often they are dissatisfied in some obscure way with their lives, and reading literature helps them to articulate that. And at the end of three years, they are transformed.
Annette never got that far. She started as a part-timer two years ago before going full time this September. I took her for critical theory, which she found bewildering. It made her feel stupid, which she wasn't. But she worked hard and passed the module. This year, she appeared in my theatre studies course. She was now more confident and enjoyed the plays. It showed in her work. There was a swiftness of sentence, a surety of touch, something understood. I was delighted by her progress. When her friend broke the news, she told me that Annette had been worried about how she'd done, and now she'd never know. We sat there in silence. "I don't know what to say," I said. "No, I don't either," she replied. And then she added: "It's funny that, isn't it? I mean, considering we study literature."
Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.