Missing: students in the soaps

August 4, 2000

Tom Wilson offers scriptwriters advice on getting higher education into the plot.

A Martian seeing British television for the first time would form a strange view of student life. EastEnders has had no higher education students of late, except the perpetually weeping Bianca who, after sleeping with her mother's boyfriend and leaving her husband, exited the script en route to Manchester University.

Brookside's Beth Jordache's affair with her married lecturer lover was overshadowed somewhat by her participation in Britain's first soap lesbian kiss. Beth sadly departed but en route to prison this time, after murdering her father and burying him underneath the patio.

The soap's Nicky Chadwick had an equally positive experience of higher education, being drugged and raped at her first student party. I am told Neighbours includes occasional references to students - as does Dawson's Creek - but they seem to inhabit a mysterious "other world" signaled by references to "yooni". As for Coronation Street, higher education is largely invisible.

Our Martian would conclude that typical students were all adulterous lesbian murderers living in a dangerous world of drugs, sex and violence. Maybe this is subliminal government marketing to boost student numbers. More likely it reflects soap-writers' ignorance of today's, as opposed to their own, education experience and the cynical use of sex and violence to boost ratings.

Soaps are supposed to be vaguely representational of real life. Between a third and a half of 18 to 24-year-olds are students, leading normal student lives. Why are they ignored? The National Health Service has programmes like Casualty, the police have The Bill and its multiple variants. But where is the university/college equivalent of Casualty? There are far more people in higher and further education than in the NHS and police combined.

To be fair, some soaps try. Hollyoaks is set in Chester and features young and old living in and around "college". Created by Phil Redmond, creator of Brookside, it has the usual quota of tortured and tangled relationships but eschews drugs and violence.

It is also squarely aimed at teenagers who tell me it is OK. But although it refers to essays, dissertations, lectures and tutors, it is like Hamlet without the ghost. All the trappings of higher education are on display but none of the substance. Asking my research panel of three (babysitter and her friends) whether it ever showed any education just brought me blank looks.

But television can do that. Admittedly the pill has to be sweetened with doses of romance . Educating Rita probably inspired thousands of wannabe students. Not just in the (probably forlorn) hope that their tutor might look like Michael Caine but that education might bring personal empowerment and freedom.

Nice Work, a four-part TV adaptation of the David Lodge Midlands university novel screened a few years ago, cast the Rita figure as a male industrialist. He falls in love with his dazzling English lecturer-mentor and also with the power of education to change and liberate. The tutor also learns a bit about life in the Midlands engineering factories - proxy for the university of life.

Radio soaps do better. The Archers has a lecturer (who has recently been reinstated to his post, after being suspended following a student's claim of sexual harassment against him).

Newspaper coverage is getting better. Local papers often carry proud reports of local youth doing well at university. If they can reflect the reality of studentdom in today's Britain, then why cannot television soaps? The National Farmers Union advises on The Archers. Lecturers' union Natfhe stands at the ready, happy to help out Coronation Street, Albert Square and Brookside fly the flag for higher education.

Tom Wilson is head of Natfhe's universities department.

* Should higher education have its own soap opera? Email us at soapbox@thes.co.uk

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