Why choose a life on ocean waves?

August 6, 1999

Jennifer Currie reports on why so many students apply to join University Royal Naval Units.

Joining a university society that expressly forbids drinking games, embarrassing forfeits and other traditional forms of student entertainment would not sound like much fun to the average undergraduate. Yet judging from the number of students who compete on an annual basis for a place in one of the UK's 14 University Royal Navy Units, such things must be worth sacrificing for a life on the ocean waves.

Since the first URNU was founded at Aberdeen University in 1967, thousands of students have turned to the high seas in search of... something.

Whether it is an escape from the ordinary or an attempt at self-discovery, the URNUs give students the opportunity to sample a lifestyle far removed from the usual undergraduate existence, while paying them for the privilege. Where else would you find students scrubbing the decks at 7am?

Recruitment is an understated aim, with only 22 per cent of URNU members finally enlisting in the Royal Navy. Recent figures show this makes up approximately 25 per cent of the annual graduate entry to the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

The same statistics show that URNU graduates subsequently perform better while training at Dartmouth than their non-URNU contemporaries.

It is perhaps for this reason that Admiral Sir John Brigstocke, second sea lord and commander in chief, Naval Home Command, is so keen to promote their activities. After a recent visit to a fleet of URNUs from London, Bristol and Southampton universities, while on an exercise in the North Sea, Admiral Brigstocke said: "It was a delight to meet such upbeat and enthusiastic cadets. If they are typical of today's undergraduates, the country is clearly in good hands."

Responsible for recruitment and support, as well as the Navy's training establishments, the admiral also has to justify the URNUs' annual budget of Pounds 5 million. In line with the Royal Navy's recently amended mission statement, Admiral Brigstocke takes as his motto: People are our greatest asset.

"When recruiting for the URNUs we look for effective intelligence. There is no good in being hugely bright if you can't apply it," he said.

Despite their relatively small intake, units are allocated Pounds 370,000 per academic year. This sum helps maintain an Archer Class P2000 Fast Patrol Boat (worth Pounds 5 million and described as "officers' playthings") and contributes to the upkeep of staff and students while at sea and on dry land. Although the emphasis is firmly on education rather than training, students are still flung in at the deep end. As well as fire fighting, damage control and boat handling, URNU members learn navigational and seamanship skills, the first of which for many first-time sailors is how to cope with the untimely demands of sea sickness.

Students are obliged to attend a weekly drill meeting (for which they are paid Pounds 7) and a number of weekend and fortnight-long deployments during which they earn a standard daily rate of Pounds . Transport, food and uniforms are also provided.

Despite the enormous investment that is involved in terms of expenditure and training, students are free to leave the unit if and when they please.

"We are now getting past the generation of people who used to be servicemen and women. A lot of people today have no interest in or understanding of the Royal Navy. The URNUs give us a chance to influence the next generation of movers and shakers," said Admiral Brigstocke. "If someone leaves the unit and later becomes prime minister, we don't mind, as they will take their memories of the Navy with them," he added.

It is for this reason that some of the URNU students think their experiences of Navy life have been cushioned, to take the sting out of living in cramped conditions with a group of relative strangers for up to two weeks at a time.

Edwina Thompson, 20, a second-year English and modern languages student at University College London, who has been a member of London's URNU unit for two years, said: "They don't make it too horrible for us in case anybody ever does get to a high position, but they have to make us understand the real responsibility of being at sea."

Described as nationwide "shop windows", the URNUs are recognised as an effective way to raise the Navy's profile in the public eye. As a result, the students are expected to adhere to Naval behavioural codes, which read:

"Behaviour in the mess is youthful and reasonably conservative on a standard drill evening. It may be more exuberant at mess functions. It is necessary that the commanding officer create a training and social atmosphere which is typical of a Royal Navy officers' mess and not typical of a student bar."

The thought of a disciplined social life does not seem to deter interested students. URNU recruitment figures boast more than 100 applications for each place, with each unit accommodating up to 50 students.

Selection procedures are described by Admiral Brigstocke as "ferocious". Over three days, applicants are tested for interpersonal and leadership skills in the hope that the leaders and opinion formers of tomorrow will make themselves known. A key target set out in the URNU mission statement is that 75 per cent of members should retain a positive memory of their time in the Navy for at least two years after leaving.

The role of the URNUs has not always been readily recognised, and some argue that there is still a long way to go. The official point of view is that the "youthful nature" and "previous loose administration structure" of the URNUs can at times cause "frustration", but this is excused as nothing more than the teething problems of a developing organisation.

Internal grumblings are surfacing too. Mark Mortimer, chief petty officer on Bristol University's HMS Dasher, said that the work of the permanent crew members, who supervise the students while at sea, is not considered as sea time in terms of pay and allowances.

He said: "The ship's crew work 87 hours a week when we're away with the URNUs, but it is not recognised as being a sea job. We're livid really. We work at weekends and during holiday periods, which makes things difficult when you have a family."

He hopes, though, that the admiral's recent praise will not only improve the public image of the URNUs, but that it will create better conditions for those working out of the public eye.


Edwina Thompson, 20, a second-year English and languages student at UCL, admits that she is using her time in the URNU as a stepping stone to other things.

"I told them from day one that I had no intention of

joining the Navy because I am a

pacifist, but they didn't mind. I want to work for the United Nations,

so the URNU is a really good way of getting another

view because we learn about peace-keeping and delivering aid," she said.

With a heavy workload and extra-curricular commitments, Ms Thompson finds the URNU schedule demanding.

"I don't always have enough time

to go on all deployments and I know

I will have to drop out for my finals. The URNU is great for people who want some adventure,

but you have to be committed. Some people go away

as much as they can for the money and the experience."

Admitting that the "pocket money is quite nice", she has also found that she has developed a lot of other strengths.

"A lot of us would not necessarily hang around together, but here we have to rely on each other."

Stuart Finn, 21, applied for a Royal Navy bursary while studying for his A levels and received a lump sum of Pounds 1,500 to support him through the three years of his computing science degree at Bristol University.

Mr Finn graduated from Bristol this summer and

is starting his basic training at the

Britannia Royal Naval College in

the autumn.

As a graduate,

he enters the Navy as a sub-lieutenant instead of a midshipman, "but I will still get all the grotty jobs to do", he said.

"My school

was tough and introverted, but the URNU has brought me out of myself and has taught me how to get on well with people in difficult circumstances. It has given me a

lot of good qualities."

Mr Finn, From a sea-going family, does not mind that he will not be able to use his degree.

"I have never had any computer-based ambitions. I always knew I was going

to join the Navy,

but I wanted to study at Bristol first to experience

university life."

Since joining

Bristol's URNU, he has noticed changes in his attitudes and

in those of his colleagues.

"People suddenly find that what they want to do is completely different from what they are doing at the moment. The URNU trains people for the good of society."

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