Reunited: The days of frolics and gowns are no more

October 15, 2004

Former MD and chairman of a retail business Paul Mills studied geology at Reading University, 1953-56.

It was Benjamin Franklin who said that nothing was certain except death and taxes. Today, he might have added "change" to his list.

I went to Reading University from Dorking Grammar School in 1953 - no gap years in those days. One or two "high-flyers" went to Oxbridge, but most sixthformers chose one of the London University Colleges. Reading appealed to me because it had a high proportion of students in halls, together with an excellent geology department - oil being the glamour industry.

I thoroughly enjoyed my salad days at Reading, yet my plans to be a geological prospector abroad were to change dramatically one day when I looked up in a maths lecture and saw a girl with a beautiful profile. I subsequently joined the graduate management trainee scheme of a leading tyre manufacturer - and learnt how to communicate with people. Over two years I was pushed through every aspect of the business - including humping raw rubber on night shift - before deciding that marketing was the career for me and so it has been until I retired last year.

Returning to Reading was a fascinating experience the changes have been "exponential". The student population has grown from some 1,100 to more than 13,000 and there seems to be a greater proportion of foreign students.

Today, courses are held in a diverse collection of modern buildings, mainly set in the 300-acre Whiteknights Park, which includes a student union with shops and its own nightclub. With an annual budget approaching £150 million, the university is bigger than many towns - with all the parking problems to match.

Of course, it is dangerous to draw conclusions from such a brief visit, but I did wonder whether the policy of getting 50 per cent of students into tertiary education would lower standards or increase dropout rates.

Certainly, there will be many more graduates competing in the job market in the future.

During my visit, I was permitted to sit in on a lecture dealing with the evolution of the earth's atmosphere. This was absolutely fascinating and included the latest evidence from polar boreholes. At the end, the 50 or so post A-level students were asked whether they had any questions - disappointingly, there wasn't one.

Have student attitudes changed since the Fifties? Enormously, I would say.

There is much more informality today, of course, and the pattern of friendships has changed - it is no longer hall-based but more course-related, although the moves to a modular system can make this difficult.

Many students now have part-time jobs during term time - unheard of in my day when grants were more generous - and, as a consequence, playing sport has reduced considerably.

The computer has become standard equipment whereas extravagances such as Rag Week and other frolics have virtually disappeared along with gowns.

Life has speeded up - undergraduates still enjoy themselves but the general ethos seems more serious.

Today, Reading has a reputation as a centre of excellence. We all tend to be products of our generation and both my wife and I still think we were lucky to be there - over half a century ago.

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