University life: From 50 years ago to now

Although the purpose of universities has remained roughly the same, the way students experience it has changed drastically over 50 years. Here’s a little trip down memory lane to see how

February 27 2019
university, studying


While we may not be travelling around on hoverboards or wearing self-tying shoes, a lot has changed between 1969 and 2019, and higher education and university are just two of those things.

The internet has changed how university students study, prices of fees and accommodation have rocketed and smartphones have made socialising so much easier. 

We take a look back at just how university life has evolved, and the major changes that have made university life both easier and harder. 

Dr Mike Jackson OBE​ – University of Southampton, botany and geography, 1969

Contact hours for lectures and practical classes were high. Studying botany, geography and geology, we had weekly practical classes that would last all day, or at least a whole afternoon. I also attended field courses with the geography department.

Each course was examined – in full – at the end of each academic year in three-hour essay exams. There was no continual assessment for the first two years and no resits. ​

​I managed on about £5 a week in my accommodation for the first two years. We had to wear an academic black gown to every breakfast and dinner. My entertainment centred on Southampton’s thriving students’ union, which featured gigs from the likes of Pink Floyd in their early days.

​The campus was quite left-wing and politically charged, but not very racially diverse. The majority of students came from the Home Counties and those of us from the Midlands and further north were in the minority.

Simple handheld calculators didn’t appear (and were very expensive) until the mid-1970s and there were no laptops or computers. We had to rely on the university’s library and its filing system.

​Barbara Hibbert​ – University of Leeds, history, 1979

There were no tuition fees when I went to university and I got a small maintenance grant that was means tested. ​In my first year I think the full grant was £850 and by the third year it was £1,200. The minimum grant was £50, which everyone got, regardless of parental income. I worked in my holidays to help support myself, and my parents made up their contribution.

​Studying was done on a typewriter and I spent a lot of time in the library. Smartphones were non-existent.

​The halls were great – with wardens and sub-wardens and wonderful pastoral care. I think it helped with a lot of the mental health problems that are now so prevalent. There were no drugs – only rumours that you could get cannabis in one of the students’ union coffee bars so we avoided that one!​

​Each of the eight houses that made up the halls had a committee that organised events for the house and liaised with the other houses, and I was among the first intake of girls. With hindsight, I think that we suffered quite a bit of discrimination and harassment, but we didn’t recognise it at the time.

I remember I met very few public school students and there was a mix of students from across the country. We thought things were getting better and the world would become more equal. How wrong we were!

Jon Bryan – Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University), sociology, 1989

In those days, there was one application system for polytechnic universities (PCAS) and one for universities (UCCA).

There was no tuition fee and I received a maintenance grant of about £800 per term. I didn’t work during term time, but I did work during the summer holidays. 

A pint of beer was less than £1, and you could go out on a Friday night for less than £5. The student union wasn’t as lively as we would’ve liked. Generally, it was better to drink in the pubs, bars and clubs in the town, which held student nights with offers on drinks. 

I would usually head to the library an hour before it closed at 10pm and take out the maximum number of books to take home. I would drink coffee to keep me awake all night and write the essay out in rough on paper. I would then begin to write out the essay in neat handwriting. It had to be in at midday, and we had to sign a book when we handed it in.

We didn't have mobile phones – we didn’t even have a landline in my first flat. To call parents you would go to the payphone and pay 10p and ask them to ring you back on the payphone. Quite often there would be other students queuing up behind you. In my second year we had a phone in our flat that only received incoming calls. Rent in my first year was the equivalent of £12.50 a week. 

The student union was very political, with various left-wing groups vying for attention and election, and there was also an active group of students aligned with the Conservatives.

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Ross Renton – University of Strathclyde, biological sciences, 1999

Following a very basic talk at school during which I was advised to complete my Duke of Edinburgh Award, I applied through a paper form. Strangely enough, my ability (or lack of) to put up a tent in horizontal rain on a sodden field near Greenock never came up again! ​

​Fees were about £1,000 per year and I received a means-tested grant, maintenance loan and travel bursary. I do remember being concerned about money and I worked part-time during throughout the year. ​

​The students’ union at Strathclyde was spread over an impressive 10 floors and there was always something happening. You could get a drink for as little as 50p and it wouldn’t be unusual to see students, and sometimes staff, drinking at lunchtime before afternoon lectures and labs.

​I would study with paper books in the (no talking, no eating and strictly no drinking water) Andersonian Library. I remember the sheer joy of eventually being given permission to use the new iMac G3 lab, which was behind a keypad-restricted door.

​Not many of my friends had mobile phones when I started at university. We had to arrange a time to meet up and be there on time. The smartest thing about my own phone was the highly addictive game, Snake.

​I was very politically active as a student and campaigned for LGBTQ+ rights and access to higher education for young people. It was not necessarily easy being an LGBTQ+ student 20 years ago in Scotland, but thankfully things have changed significantly. In many ways I believe there are greater pressures on students today, however I am proud to say that we are providing more support on campus.

​Seeta Bhardwa – University of Reading, English, 2009

When I started university in 2008, my fees were £3,000 but while I was at university the government approved the increase of tuition fees to £9,000. This kicked in, in 2012, the year after I graduated. Maintenance loans and grants were also available, dependent on your family’s earnings. My tuition fees were paid through a student loan, which I’m pretty certain I’m never going to pay back. 

Nights out at the students’ union were pretty cheap, pints were about £2.50. We could go for a night out in town for about £20-£25, which would include a few drinks and taxis there and back. 

Although my maintenance loan was just enough to cover study materials and socialising, and a bit of my accommodation, I worked during my Christmas and summer holidays to top it up and my parents were willing to help out too. 

Laptops were fairly common at this point with most of my friends coming to university with one or buying one while they were there. I bought my first laptop just as I started university. It was quite a bulky machine, but I did the majority of my work on this, and it saved me going to the library to do research and type up essays. I still used books for research, but this was also mixed with online journals and essays too. We had to hand in a paper copy of essays as well as a digital copy.  

Most students had smartphones (Blackberrys were all the rage) but we still used digital cameras to take photos on nights out and uploaded multiple albums to Facebook. 

I lived in the cheapest and most basic halls in my first year at about £80 a week but we certainly got what we paid for! The rooms were large but we shared a bathroom and kitchen with 16 other students. My average rent for my student houses was £250 a month, and both houses were in fairly decent condition. I consider myself quite lucky that I didn’t have to deal with any houses that were falling apart or difficult landlords. 

With the drastic change in tuition fees happening halfway through my time at university, students were really politically active and engaged in protests to overturn the decision.

Izzy Langstone – University of Sussex, media and communications, 2019

The fees I pay at university are £9,250, but that is covered by my student loan so I don’t even see that money go in or out of my account. In terms of maintenance loan, I receive about £3,388 a year, which is quite low because of my parents’ income and other factors. This annoyingly doesn’t even cover my rent so I have to ask the bank of mum and dad to help me out sometimes. 

A student night out is always done on the cheap in my books. On student nights, bars and clubs will do discounted drinks. The Sussex students’ union is a friendly and fun environment, in which the Falmer bar is the usual starting point for most society nights out and bar crawls. Otherwise, it can be a place of study, watching movies or catching up with friends.

A laptop is a studying essential at university, or many people use a tablet or their mobile to help keep all their notes organised. The majority of my hand-ins are digital as well, so it is really important to have access to the internet. Also, the internet allows me to access thousands of ebooks and online journals that I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise, despite our library being very well equipped. 

These days, if you don’t have a smartphone it seems as though you are living in the dark ages. Smartphones make organising life so much easier, with alarms, calendar, maps, reminders, social media and many other things. Most people use their phones as a camera too and access their world news from platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, instead of traditional newspapers.

Renting is very much about trial and error, and some letting agencies don’t treat students that well. I paid £140 a week in halls (extortion) and then paid £125/week in second year for a well-located but pretty run-down house. It’s about finding a balance between location, rent and quality of housing, and this year I lived a bit further away from the centre of town but compensated with cheaper rent and a much larger house. 

Something that is amazing about my university is how diverse the students are, and the wide range of societies that are available to join, for even the nichest of interests (David Attenborough Society…), and I’ve never felt like I was out of place or like I couldn’t be involved in something. Sussex is a very political place to study and that sense of fighting for what you believe in is something that will affect me for the rest of my life.

Read more: Best universities in the UK 


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