Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Huw Lewis Column

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Huw Lewis Column

Article excerpt

Byline: By Huw Lewis

The first chill winds of autumn gusting in off the North Sea bring with them the students, migrating to our cities for the cold dark months ahead. But what for?

For this first few weeks of autumn term, as freshers' pub crawls totter noisily through our streets, it would seem to be the beer that drives them North.

These parties are a bonding ritual to excite any anthropologist. On the face of it the purpose is straightforward ( callow teenagers uprooted to a strange city, away from family and friends who have nurtured them, need to break the ice quickly.

It is also, though, a rite of passage offering entrance to the great, wealthy, successful Middle Class.

This, after all, has been the modern purpose of universities. To offer not just qualifications but a new set of social skills, codes and contacts ( the passwords to a lifetime of boardroom presentations, cocktail parties and golf club weekends.

This is true to some extent of universities in most countries but we are more class-conscious, and it is most true here.

There are elite colleges and "fraternity houses" in France and the USA that have extreme unofficial entrance codes, involving ritual humiliations and torture. Students go through them because, once inside, an "old school tie" network will look after you.

Our rites are less extreme but imply the same promise.

Take, for example, our habit of sending children away to university. This is normal in Britain, but far less common elsewhere in Europe. It adds rent to the already significant cost of three years' study.

And yet many parents unquestionably dip into their savings. The assumption is teenagers must be removed from familiar surroundings if they are to experience student life fully ( starting with the mild debauchery of freshers' week, setting the vein for the years ahead.

The alcohol, junk food and uncertain copulations are means to an end ( creating a rose-tinted shared experience to separate "us" from "them" in those boardrooms, cocktail parties and golf clubs.

I went to university. We larked about in halls and shivered together in rundown bedsits; as "finals" loomed some promised to keep in touch where we might help each other. …

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