As a graduate of several programmes in the UK I know how much the academic environment can shape the way you feel and behave in those formative years.
My campus universities offered a placid pace of life and a sense of community, while the city counterparts, if isolating at times, offered adventure and diversity. Here I reflect on the different lifestyles I experienced at the two types of institution.
My undergraduate days were spent at the University of Reading, a leafy campus university with a large lake and plenty of wooded pathways. The short walk or cycle to lectures was always pleasant and there was a large green where many of the principal buildings were situated. Onsite accommodation meant that I often bumped into the same people several times a day.
In the first year, nightlife would usually revolve around the student union. More adventurous nights out would involve heading into the town centre but we usually ended up partying back in hall. On the smaller satellite campus especially, where students were studying the same subjects, there was a community spirit and groups of us would sit around the kitchen table and work on assignments together. On the other hand, because the boundary between work and play was blurred, it could sometimes feel a bit stifling and it was difficult to avoid certain individuals if you wanted to.
In the second and third years, when most people moved to shared private accommodation, the focus shifted away slightly from the campus. Parties tended to be held at student houses, you were less likely to bump into people you knew, but the campus was still a central location and it was difficult not to stay close to it. After all, most student housing was located on its fringes and it had almost everything you needed (sports centre, shops, clubs/societies) at a fraction of the high street cost.
My experience of postgraduate study at the University of London was entirely different. Whenever I travelled to King’s College London I did so with a small thrill. I’d get off the Tube at Charing Cross, glance across at Trafalgar Square, then stroll up the Strand in the shadow of the towering buildings. If we went out for a coffee after the seminar we would sit out on the street and watch the city rush by. After a full teaching day at the Institute of Education in Bloomsbury we might have a couple of drinks at the Soas, University of London bar then hop across the road to the much larger University of London Union, where students of all ages and nationalities gathered.
Despite the 24/7 excitement it offers there’s something about the pace and scale of a city that makes you feel anonymous or alone, even in a crowd. Without a peer support group, study can also feel like an isolating experience. The cost of living is steep and for the time and effort it sometimes took me to get across the capital I might as well have travelled a quarter of the length of Britain.
More so than the campus university, the urban college requires you to be socially proactive. If you don’t want to be confined to your bedroom you need to make the effort to get out there and meet people. This might involve networking or taking up work placements – for which opportunities abound in the city. For those who like a faster-paced life, with endless social opportunities and chances to meet new people, a city university may be more suitable.
For the less gregarious or those who are perhaps nervous about leaving home for the first time, a campus university can be a cosier, more personal experience. With its onsite security and defined boundaries you are, to some extent, insulated from the outside world. And of course for those who enjoy a lie-in there’s nothing like arriving at a lecture five minutes after you’ve rolled out of bed.
Now I’m at the University of Birmingham, where I’m currently doing my PhD, and the train station delivers you right into the heart of the bustling campus where I can spend a day in the library, nip across to meet my supervisor for a meeting, then saunter to one of the several subsidised bars or cafes to meet friends or colleagues. It feels as though I have the best of both worlds.
Geoff Mills is a freelance writer, actor and PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Birmingham.
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