THE FOCUS of students' lives has moved from the classroom to halls of residence, bars and clubs, according to a survey of students' lives and attitudes from the 1960s to the present.
The size of modern campuses and the introduction of new modular course structures has "depersonalised" student social life. Expenditure on leisure is now considered an essential part of being a student and the increased credit available has made this possible.
Harold Silver, co-author of a new book, Students: Changing Roles, Changing Lives, told an audience at the Society for Research into Higher Education this week that it is the first wide-ranging survey of the changes in students' lives, activities and attitudes since the period of student activism in the 1960s and 1970s.
Professor Silver, visiting professor at the University of Plymouth, and his wife Pamela visited 20 British and two American campuses, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania, in three years. They asked students about their experience of residence, student unions, clubs and societies, leisure, hardship, and part-time work.
Professor Silver said: "We must abandon the stereotypical image we have of students as being aged 18-plus, taking three-year courses and treating university as an interlude between school and life."
Students expect a better standard of living than their counterparts in the 1970s, according to Professor Silver. This attitude has been encouraged by the availability of credit - students can now buy a guitar or a fridge on hire purchase with their student loan.
A quarter of full-time students had part-time jobs, and that figure doubled in many of the former London polytechnics where 60-70 per cent of students are mature or studying part-time. According to Professor Silver a lot of those students could survive without working but would not be able to afford the kind of social life they wanted.
He said students in the 1990s were less politicised and less keen to get involved in the student union than in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1970s a politicised generation went to university to acquire the knowledge that would enable them to argue their causes more articulately. In the 1990s the "me" generation goes to university to get a 2:1 and to get a good job, he said.
Selina Mason of Middlesex University Students Union challenged the view that students in the 1990s were apathetic. They were interested in causes, but these were now mainly single issues, reflecting the British political scene.
Professor Silver conceded that he had observed localised political activity, as in Durham where one in eight students was involved in student community action.
In the past eight years most university towns had become "building sites" as they rushed to accommodate record intakes. There were now rarely fewer than 10 students per lecturer in a tutorial and 25:1 in a seminar. The increase in modular courses meant that students changed their academic peer groups more often and that bars, clubs and residences became a more important social focus.