WHY I... agreed to go back to university - this time at Luton

January 14, 2000

Lembit Opik: Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire and a graduate of Bristol University. At the Sharp End airs at 7.30pm, 19 January on BBC2.

Few people even know Luton has a university, never mind whether it is any good.

It is typical of the new universities - designed to accommodate the massive expansion in student numbers, which the current and former governments have driven hard.

Last October, the BBC asked me to go to Luton with two other MPs, Quentin Davies and Fiona MacTaggart, for its TV show At the Sharp End. We were to be media students there, living and studying with other students. Before becoming an MP, I was a student at Bristol University, which places itself near the top in the hierarchy of British universities. It was interesting to compare Bristol and Luton.

My first discovery was how practical Luton students are. They go to Luton to get a specific set of skills on the way to a particular job. The students I was living with were studying sport and fitness, accountancy, architecture, advertising and marketing, and psychology. The focus on jobs contrasted with my previous university experience at Bristol - which, in retrospect, seemed more academic and less career-focused.

My second discovery was the level of student hardship. While students are still keen to party, they are feeling the pinch financially. Happy hours and discount nights are the order of the day. We entered into the spirit of the social scene, taking advantage of the offers of cheap booze and were amazed to see some students drink their body weight.

I had to work in a pub in town. Rachel, a full-time student, worked there most nights - a necessity if she was to stay solvent. This was a real change for the worse since my student days. Without rich parents, students now can barely afford to study.

My third discovery was that the media arts course was highly rated by most students. Media arts courses tend to get rubbished, with little justification. But 90 per cent of graduates on this course go on to employment in the media industry.

Overall, I came away with the impression that an average Luton student is more practical and less esoteric than his or her Bristol counterpart. And on my last night I could not stop myself - I ate a kebab.

As for the university, there is a success story waiting to be told. The undeservedly low reputation of the place is bound to change as Luton graduates permeate the upper levels of the industries for which they are being trained. I predict applications to Luton will increase in the next few years.

If Luton is typical of the new universities, the expansion of student places can work, as long as students can actually afford to go to college. This is the biggest barrier to student participation. The government's strategy could be thwarted by student poverty.

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