Other Articles Apr 18 2004

Forget Oxbridge and give me London any day

I suppose I was once what could be called a “university refuser”. I love every minute of my schools days in North London thanks to my active social life but did very little work and left with unimpressive A levels, little interest in higher education and a strong urge to go round America on a Greyhound bus. I had applied to Liverpool in the sixth form but within minutes of stepping off the train at Lime Street knew instinctively that I wouldn’t stay the course if I left London and turned down my place. However after one retake and before I left for New York, my redoubtable mother insisted that I filled out another UCCA form – the compromise was that it would only be to London colleges – and while I was away UCL offered me a place. Coming back after months on a California beach was a sharp dose of reality. I realised I had to do something with my life, took up the place to read Economics and Economic History (hated the economics, loved the history) which was one of the best decisions I have every made. Much to my amazement I began to love learning. This has left me with a strong, lasting view that children and young people often come to education in their own time and can’t always be pushed into it.

The pleasure I got from ploughing through everything I could about the Industrial Revolution (a much underrated period in today’s prescriptive national curriculum) came flooding back quickly when I walked into the Main Library at the heart of the domed building in Gower Street. In fact not much else had changed, some imaginative building work has gone on, the economics department had moved but the historians have stayed in their rooms in the houses on Gordon Square (something which added to the pleasure of being there since I developed a mild obsession with Virginia Woolf at the time). My tutor Negley Harte is still there and kindly took me for lunch. He told me that his Historical Demography course was so poorly attended that he renamed in “Family Sex and Death” and now plays to packed houses. Not sure that would have happened in my day.

The downside of going to university in London if you already live there is that you don’t submerge yourself in college life and I kept most of my existing friends, many of whom had also opted to study in London. I loved the fact that I could walk out of my lectures and be in Tottenham Court Road within minutes.

However I played no part in student politics or journalism, even though both have dominated my life since. My last term at UCL saw the dying days of the Callaghan government and coming from a staunch Labour family, I remember being shocked by the enthusiasm so many of the young economists had for monetarism. I finished my finals just as Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. As I left UCL after my first visit in 25 years I couldn’t fail to notice the posters in the university’s Bloomsbury Theatre advertising a show in which my partner (former communications director at No 10 Alastair Campbell) talks about what it was really like for both of us working in the first Labour government since that Thatcher victory. Who would have thought it…….?

This article originally appeared in the Times Higher Education Supplement in April 2004.

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