Reunited: 'Birkbeck, quite rightly, fancies itself'

March 19, 2004

John Wardle, aka Jah Wobble, studied humanities at Birkbeck College from 1996 to 2000. The former Public Image Limited bassist is now a music producer.

In 1996, after a good few years of procrastination, I finally began a BA in humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Birkbeck's speciality was part-time degree courses for mature (I still use the term loosely in relation to myself) students. Being unconfident, I tested the water by doing an access course. I'm not sure I would have got in otherwise. One of the two interviewers seemed to think I was a time waster and would be unlikely to last the pace - a minimum of 12 to 15 hours a week for four years. However, the access course seemed to clinch it, at least for the other (nice) interviewer. It was one of those good cop, bad cop moments. "Good cop" realised that my cockney accent did not indicate fecklessness.

I was determined to do the job and passed with a good 2:1, all achieved while touring, welcoming my first son into the world, running my record label, as well as advising newly emergent nations in Europe on their foreign policy. It's true to say I was a little bit busy. (To compensate, I now meditate calmly and peacefully in front of the Sky Sports channels for long periods at a time.) So why did I want to begin a degree at the ripe old age of 39? Well, I knew that I had academic talents, but had woefully underachieved (my only qualifications were two low-grade O-level passes). I had seen people of a similar age and background go on and do degrees. I was envious. Also, it's nice to take time off from being Jah Wobble (although I must admit, what a geezer!) and do something (extra) ordinary. The old minor celebrity malarkey can get a bit tiresome, water skiing in Monte Carlo, or boring receptions at foreign embassies... it's all so meaningless. It's nice being plain old John Wardle. Anyway, I enjoy being one of a crowd (when it suits me). I didn't want to do an Open University degree; I wanted to be there in the flesh, entertained and informed in the large lecture halls by the likes of Anthony Grayling. I wanted somewhere second to none.

Birkbeck has a sense of place and tradition. It does, quite rightly, "fancy itself". Its sense of identity is probably greater than that of the University of London as a whole, or of any of its other colleges, and is defined by its relationship with mature students. Nevertheless, when I returned, I noticed that the average age of the students had dropped noticeably. At first I thought it might be a case of me getting older.

However, my suspicions were confirmed by statistics. Before I continue, I must state that I resent young people (mainly for their youth, naturally).

I think an ideal age range for Birkbeck students would be mid to late 20s upwards, with an average age ideally around the late 30s, as it was when I was there. However, to be fair, I can see it from the younger person's perspective; they can work in the day/study at night, and not end up like their full-time peers, saddled with a large debt at the end of their degree.

This has led to Birkbeck becoming very popular with a younger crowd. One consequence is that the college seems a lot more crowded than it was in my time there. The place looks a bit different: a large section of the college has been rebuilt, creating a new, and rather large, state-of-the-art library in the process. Looks very tempting. Hmmm... perhaps I'll do an MA... I'm very young at heart you know.

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