What Use is a Degree?
Life-stories of University Graduates
Andrew Ward, Lynn Jones & Alan Jenkins
ISBN: 1 86174 122 7
Table of Contents
Introduction ................................................................................................................. 1
References ........................................................................................................................ 1
The Class of 1979 ...................................................................................................... 2
Carl Phillips ....................................................................................................................... 2
Wendy Jarman .................................................................................................................12
The Class of 1982 .................................................................................................... 19
Katherine Thomas ............................................................................................................19
Antony Squance ...............................................................................................................27
Claire Rayment .................................................................................................................35
The Class of 1985 .................................................................................................... 41
Damian Shouler ................................................................................................................49
The Class of 1988 .................................................................................................... 54
Suzanne Caulfield ............................................................................................................54
Neil Stephenson ...............................................................................................................60
Ruth McArthur ..................................................................................................................61
The Class of 1991 .................................................................................................... 70
Lisa Jacklin .......................................................................................................................78
Alex Matthews ..................................................................................................................85
The Class of 1994 .................................................................................................... 90
Michelle King ....................................................................................................................90
Howard Stimpson .............................................................................................................96
Tina Yardley ...................................................................................................................104
Methodology and Acknowledgements .................................................................... 110
This work has been produced by the authors and participants. The Geography
Discipline Network and the University of Gloucestershire shall not be held
responsible for the content of this publication, or the views expressed within.
This book contains 18 stories provided by graduates from the award-winning
Geography course at Oxford Brookes University (formerly Oxford Polytechnic). The
graduates are representative of the period from 1979 to 1997, during which time the
Geography department in question used non-traditional teaching methods – group
projects, presentations, posters, etc.
The graduate accounts are shown individually here because we found that the same
course can affect graduates in completely different ways. We have explained reasons
for the variation in learning outcomes in a separate article (Jenkins, Jones & Ward,
2001). Elsewhere we have provided an oral-history account of the development of the
Geography department at Oxford Brookes University (Jenkins & Ward, 2001) and we
have offered further background to the study (Ward & Jenkins, 1999).
In 1998, when the project began, the Oxford Brookes University Geography
department had had over 20 years' experience of engaging with some important
issues of modern Higher Education – modular courses, active-learning methods,
skill-development and the professionalisation of staff. The department received an
excellent rating from external assessors in 1995, and was awarded the BP
Exploration Prize for Education in Geography in 1993.
We designed a project to study the long-term effects of this popular non-vocational
degree course and the non-traditional teaching methods used in the course. We
selected a representative random sample of 18 people who had graduated between
1982 and 1997 – three from each of six equidistant cohorts – and traced all eighteen
graduates. (See Methodology & Acknowledgements for further details.) We
interviewed sixteen (between July 1998 and January 1999) and have now brought
the life-stories together in this collection.
Jenkins, A., Jones, L. & Ward, A. (2001) The Long-term Effect of a Degree on
Graduate Lives, Studies in Higher Education, 26(1), pp.149-163.
Jenkins, A. & Ward, A. (2001) Moving with the Times: An Oral History of a
Geography Department, Journal for Geography in Higher Education, 25(2),
Ward, A. and Jenkins, A. (1999) Collecting the Life-stories of Graduates: Evaluating
Students' Educational Experiences, Oral History, 27(2), pp.77-86.
The Class of 1979
On the first Saturday of 1982, a group of 40 third-year Geography students gathered
at Oxford Polytechnic and boarded a hired Heyfordian coach for a 10-day field trip to
Amsterdam. Wearing tank tops and flared jeans, and the occasional wide tie, they
soon familiarised themselves with the omnipresent music on the coach: Shakatak
On the second day of their field trip, the students were allocated to groups and asked
to identify the major social and environmental issues in Amsterdam. Carl Phillips's
project group decided to research the Biljmer, a tower-block housing estate on the
south-east of the city. They compared outsiders' impressions of the housing estate
with insiders' views. They interviewed people, presented their findings and displayed
their conclusions on a poster.
‘We found that the residents were indignant about the estate's reputation with
outsiders,’ said Phillips, when asked for his views by a project group making a video
of the field trip. ‘The outsiders had the impression of a high level of violence in the
Biljmer but that was completely unfounded.’
Later that year Carl Phillips graduated from Oxford Polytechnic with a BEd degree in
Applied Education and Geography. After many years of living in London, he has
recently moved to a village 12 miles south of Oxford. He spends two days a week in
London and works from home the rest of the time.
The interview takes place in Oxford because Carl visits a Headington hospital twice a
week for treatment to his knee, injured in a skiing accident earlier in the year. The
venue for the interview is a Headington cafe that is a ten-minute walk from the main
site of Oxford Brookes University.
In 1982 Carl Phillips was a fresh-faced 22-year-old student researching an
Amsterdam housing estate on his final Geography field trip. Now, at 39, in
November 1998, he is something very different.
Choosing the Course
I failed my A levels and retook them at sixth-form college, and my big intention was to
join the merchant navy. I did all the interviews and got offered a place with Shell but I
failed the medical. I found out that I was colour-blind.
My family were all teachers so teaching was an easy option. I came here to do
Education and Geography. The Modular Course suited me because I was very good
at failing exams. I liked the idea that I wasn't going to have the big finals. The work
that I've chosen since has been on that basis. I never put myself into a final ‘big
I passed all my A levels the second time round which was a bit of a surprise –
Chemistry, Geography and Geology. And I got nice grades, which was again a bit of
a shock. I did the Geology in three months and managed to get a B for it. That was
a cramming exercise. I just learned all the minerals and all the fossils two days
before the exam and I got full marks on that paper, which meant that it was very hard
to fail the rest. It overlapped with the Geography, and I was interested in plate
tectonics and all those sorts of things.
It was either here or Leicester. Both of them did this modular-type course, but Leicester
was a long way from the sea and the big centres for sailing. And this was closer. The
prospectus said that Oxford had an active sailing club. When I came I found that it
didn't. It's very much like the holiday-brochure that says there's going to be hoby-cats
and lasers on the beach, but when you get there you find they are broken.
I didn't enjoy college. It was not a very pleasant experience. I found the Education
course very isolating. We were based out at Wheatley and there were three guys out
of 90-odd students on the Primary Education course. There were a lot of very nice
ladies with very nice voices who had nice private-school educations and they had
very nice cars in the car-park. I think Wheatley was very much an extension of
finishing-school and I was a little bit rough and uneducated. Coming up from
Portsmouth, it was another world for me.
When I was eleven my mother went to college in Portsmouth as a mature teaching
student. So I went through school with a mature teaching student who was filling the
house with teaching aids, making things out of cardboard and plastic and helping me
with my Maths homework. I was like the little apprentice. I saw the things that she
was doing and then I came to Oxford and I can't get over how disappointed I was
with the quality of the Education department. It just left me cold and I had several
run-ins with them over the quality of the teaching. It got to the stage where I had to
do nine modules in my last term at college – you were supposed to do four a term –
and I had to get eight of them and I did it.
I had to do teaching practice and two Education modules a term, so Education was
the main focus all the way through. Wheatley was a very isolating place, and coming
down to Headington was quite a relief because you got away from it. On the other
hand you didn't feel part of Headington. That was ‘the other bit’ of the college. They
tried to integrate the two campuses but it was a joke. The lecturers would think, ‘Why
on earth do we have to traipse all the way out here just for a classroom?’
The thing I liked about the Geography course was that it wasn't really factual – it was
more the ideas behind things. Some of the modules I did, like Food Nutrition and
Climatology, were much more exact and I found those ever so difficult. The
Geography was a long way from science. It was more what I would call Humanities.
In the Education modules we were regurgitating quotes from psychologists and
sociologists and it was pretty dire, whereas I found the Geography modules inspiring.
It was a pleasure to do them. I can remember modules like Human Organisation of
Space and Chinese Cultural Landscape because they were fun. Some of the time, in
the Geography modules, you were thinking, ‘How the hell can this be counted as
degree work?’ When I was doing the course I had major doubts about the educational
content. To an outsider looking in, it must have looked like a holiday camp. But it's
definitely stayed with me. I've far more memories about that than about anything I did
on other modules. Chinese Cultural Landscape was about the most whacky course
that you could do. You sat there and watched movies but you were left with the
impression that it is easy to manipulate an image. It was quite stunning.
I remember doing my book review on The Monkey-Wrench Gang. We had the
choice between Zen and the Art of Motor-Cycle Maintenance or The Monkey Wrench
Gang and I definitely chose the right book. I still recommend it to people because it's
just like environmental anarchism.
I'm starting to remember things now. I did a project about lead in petrol. It was when
they were taking lead out of petrol and I did a ‘hang on a second’ project – who
gains, does it actually improve things, where does all the research money come
from? I have always been cynical about all these sorts of things. I question a lot of
what goes on. The course was definitely asking you to question everything. I keep
going back to the Chinese Cultural Landscape course. At the time it seemed bizarre
– why are we doing this course? – but it was probably the most eye-opening course.
It really made you challenge what you were seeing. The staff were a bunch of lefties
– most of them – but they were very nice people. Jenkins and Keene were the
warmer ones but you were slightly in fear of some of them.
In Education the people would stand up in front of you and tell you. The Geography
course was much more involved. It was what I call ‘real learning’. You were
participating, there were lots of different media and it was interesting. They played
the attention-span game and they actually changed things every ten or fifteen
minutes, whereas we slept through Education lectures because they told us about it
but never did it.
Whenever I think about college I always think of the Geography side. That's my first
thought. Then I have the negative thought, which is the Education side. And then I
think about other things. My immediate picture is the lady who was the housemother.
I'm trying to remember her name. That's right, Heather Jones. I remember her
because she was the focus of everything. I never had a clue about timetables but
she always knew. I have a PA now because somebody has to make sure that I've
done all the things I'm supposed to have done.
You'll need to jog my memory a little about field trips. Oh, yes, Scotland. I did my
21st birthday in Scotland. We were all marooned by the tail-end of some sort of
hurricane. Where did we go to? Oban. That's it. We went to Oban and a bear had
escaped and was on the island. It was my 21st birthday so my memories are of
being incredibly drunk and trying to climb into a police van. I was put in the bath and
all those sorts of things. We did some walking up very muddy hills but there had
been some sort of gale or hurricane so we couldn't do a lot of the things that we were
supposed to do, like measuring rivers. Shame! We were stuck in town – ‘Get on with
it, guys, have a nice day.’ And we were very good at that. It was a mixed-year group
and there were some nice people on that trip.
We did another field trip when we played the bah-fah game. Give me some of the
names of the people who ran the courses ... yes, this was David Pepper and Peter
Keene. They set up two communities in different rooms and split the course into two
groups. One group speaks the language of bah and the other one speaks the
language of fah and you send missionaries from one room to the other to try to find
out what the other culture is all about. That was fascinating. I was quite impressed
with that and I bought the book afterwards, but I've never found myself in an
environment to do it again.
I can't think where we went for that field trip [Caer Llan] and I can't tell you what that
course was about but that one game left an impression and that was enough. My
wife is Japanese and we go out to Japan every year, and I am completely obsessed
with the way people interpret the Japanese. Yeah, I think they've done some horrible
things in the past but their whole culture is completely different to ours. Their
acceptance of death is incredible. We tend to have this sterile image of other
cultures, as if you go away and eat horse and dolphin.
The big field trip, the one to Amsterdam, was a laugh. We did a piece of work on the
Biljmer and then five years later it was flattened by a Jumbo Jet. I was in a group
with very nice girls. Once we'd decided what we were going to do, and they'd
accepted our proposal, we just made sure we got the right result. The Biljmer was
supposed to be the really rough area of Amsterdam. The Moluccans lived there and
no-one would go there. We did a day of interviewing, asking people who didn't live
there what they thought of the place and they all said, ‘It'll be terrible.’ And then we
went out there on the monorail and it was absolutely fantastic. The people there said
how much they loved living there. On the video we did recordings of the birds and
the ponds and said, ‘We're in the middle of this ghetto, isn't it wonderful?’ The
people who had been there said they thought it was nice, but 95 per cent of the
people who hadn't been there said they had a perception that it was terrible.
Breakfasts were awful but the high spot was the Heineken Brewery trip. Shakatak
was playing on the coach all the time and everyone bought a copy. Shakatak was an
instrumental band, and the song was Drivin' Hard. That was us on our trip across
Europe. I travel a lot with my boat now and we go to Medemblik, and Amsterdam is
only round the corner. It's really easy to get there. But at the time it was a big
adventure. I hadn't been to Europe.
I enjoyed the work we did and I enjoyed putting it together afterwards. We said all
the right things so we got an A for our coursework. I'd never had an A before and it
did seem that you didn't have to do very much to get an A. But you can't take it back,
guys! On the other hand we had come to the right conclusion and the fact that we'd
come to the right conclusion very quickly rather than taking a long time to get there
shouldn't make any difference. I was very proud of it. I've still got the report at home.
I was going to bring it up today, but I didn't have time to get it. It's the only thing I
kept. And a few books – the bah-fah book and some town trails.
Give my regards to everybody in the Geography department. Tell them I still think of
them as if they were 20 years younger. They are little time-capsules in the memory.
I started sailing about two years before I went to college. I've always done
championships. My first-ever sail was at a championship. In places like Portsmouth
and Southampton sailing is the equivalent to boxing. It's a poor man's sport. There's
a huge anti-sailing snobbery in Portsmouth. I was quite stunned when I came away
to find that people in other areas perceive sailing as something that you aspire to.
When I joined the college there wasn't a sailing club as such. They had two old
dinghies that were pretty atrocious and had never been sailed. The club had a
membership, because people would sign up at the freshers' fair, but there was
nothing beyond that. I had my own boat and a couple of other people had their own
boats. The problem with the sailing club was that you had to do everything. You had
to raise the money, organise the training, make sure people turned up, organise the
cars and drive them there. It was like a full-time admin job. No time for lectures!
One nice thing about the Modular Course at Oxford was that I was able to pick and
choose courses. Because I'd always had this big thing about sailing, I was able to do
a cartography module and I learned more about clouds in Climatology. But there
was a dilemma with the sailing club: Are you there as a sailing instructor or are you
there to become a better sailor yourself? The Wednesday afternoon sailing was
almost a chore, but afterwards we stayed on for club racing. We went to the student
championships but we lacked equipment, we lacked skill and we lacked training. I
did a lot of sailing through college and I've carried on with that ever since.
There was also a big Canoeing Club and I joined that. There were two lecturers in
the engineering department who were senior instructors. They were always there so
there was always going to be a canoeing session. And we had use of the swimming
pool so you could do water-polo and rolling and things. It was very organised. Lots
of trips. One of the reasons I enjoyed the canoe club was that it was on a plate.
Most weekends in the winter we went surfing in Wales. I ended up as president of that
club as well. There were a lot of people keen to do things in the Surfing Club so I didn't
have to do everything. They were very enthusiastic whereas in the sailing there were
only about two of us who were competent and there were an awful lot of people who
wanted to go sailing. We needed certain numbers in order to get your grants from the
Students Union but boats are very expensive compared to surfboards. You buy
second-hand boats and they fall apart so you're screwing them back together all the
time. The Canoeing Club had very nice equipment and you could just go and do it,
either on your own or in groups of twenty. You could just go off for the weekend with a
couple of canoes and a tent and find a beach. That was good.
It did distance me from the other students. I'd go into lectures and people were
telling me about all the pubs or the punting or the picnic down by the Cherwell, and I
didn't know where these places were. I spent my money on travelling and sailing. I
was a little bit distant from their lives, but on the other hand I got myself into
something which I've kept going ever since. I've been most places in the world with
my sailing. I met my wife through sailing. Sailing has been the main thing in my life
ever since, and I just go to work to pay for it.
I trained as a teacher and I couldn't get a job. I did about 70 or 80 applications for
different jobs but it was a bad time for teachers. I'd always worked through holidays
at college and I'm one of these people who's never out of work. So I went to work for
the Social Services.
The first two months I worked in an assessment centre and that was fantastic. They
were hard-nut children, repeat offenders brought in by the police, and they were with
you for three days. You had to do an assessment for whether they could go into a
children's home or whether they would have to go back to the courts. You wrote the
court reports. You never knew what was going to happen and it was fantastic fun,
and the Assessment Centre had all the facilities – the go-kart track and the
basketball court. You learned a lot about people.
Then I worked in various children's homes and I liked the rough ones. Again it was a
real experience of life. I'm not surprised about any of the paedophile stories. The
qualifications for most of the people working there were that they'd just rung up and
said that they were available. I was quite exceptional in that I had a degree and
training in Education. You were essentially a cook, cleaner and person to lock the
door at night. It also got to the stage where I was walking down the street in
Portsmouth wondering if a child was going to lash out at me. That wasn't healthy.
So I applied for some teaching jobs about May  and I got the second one I
I went into teaching in Ealing [London]. I taught for nearly three years in Education
Priority Areas (EPAs). I got my scale 2 after my first year because I transferred to a
special team that took over one of those lovely schools that was given two terms to
improve or it would be shut down. I had great fun. The way I taught was nothing to
do with lesson plans or the things they showed you at college. It was shaped by
what I'd seen. I was definitely influenced by the lecturers on the Geography course.
What we were being shown back then was very good and it had more influence on
my actual teaching than anything I learned in Education. I swear to this day that I
might as well have not done the Education course for the amount of value it gave me
as a teacher.
I went in to school the week before I started my first teaching job and I transformed
the classroom. I hung spinnakers from the ceiling to lower the ceiling and I moved
everything around. I did away with my desk and it was hands-on management: ‘You
don't come to me, I come to you.’ And I was into body-language. I don't know how
much of that I'd seen at college or how much I'd read about it but I had very good
discipline. Eighteen months later I was giving talks to teachers and they were being
brought to my class to see how it was run.
I had also been given a PE post, even though I wasn't PE trained, and on my first day
of teaching, the head came up to me at about 8 am and said, ‘The PE Inspector's
coming in today, and he wants to see you teach.’ Ealing had always had a fantastic
PE programme, and I'd noticed the books in the staff-room and I'd read about warm-
ups. The PE Inspector was called Jim Hall – a name that stays with you for ever! I
got the class in the hall and I said to him, ‘Mr Hall, I'm not PE trained, it's going to do
me far more good if you take this lesson, I'll learn a lot more.’ And he said, ‘Fine, you
do the warm-up, give me a nod and I'll take over.’ And that was it. Afterwards he
told me, ‘I was more than happy to do that for you, but I'm coming back in a month to
watch you do it, and in the meantime there are these courses you should go on, and
the next meeting for the PE Association for Ealing is on Tuesday and you're going to
be there.’ He also said to me, ‘If you're going to carry on working in EPAs, most of
the children you're going to teach won't have jobs when they leave school, so you're
going to have to make sure that they have happy memories of the time they were at
school, and you're going to have to give them a positive role-model or they're just
going to go out and beat up grannies.’
In that first year, I became a squash coach, a tennis coach, a netball coach, a cricket
coach, and I did my football coaching awards. I was going on residential weekends
and learning how to abseil. That was fantastic. Most of my teaching skills came from
this PE side but I was aware of how the Geography guys were teaching – as soon as
the interest is lost, stop doing it. That's been my big strength since leaving teaching.
I know when to stop something and come at it another way and keep the relationship
going. But I didn't learn that from my teacher training. I was trained a lot about the
History of Education, and Psychology and Philosophy. That was pretty dull. But the
Geography lecturers were walking the talk. They were doing what you were being
told about. What they were doing was more coaching than lecturing. Most of the
other teaching that you experienced at college was very much on the A level method
– I've got the book and I'm going to read sections of it to you.
I taught for two years and two terms. Then I got extremely depressed because there
were lots of things in teaching that I didn't like. I was doing deputy headship
interviews and I got offered one in Dorset but they told me that they'd only pay me
£9,000. At the time my rent in London was £5,000, and I was thinking, ‘I can't afford
to live like this.’ I was constantly waiting for the next pay cheque and praying for the
next holiday to come round so I could get out and do some work. I could earn more
in a summer holiday than in a term of teaching, and I was doing more and more on
the computing side. Agency work. Going into banks and typing data into a computer
for them. I couldn't type particularly quickly but I wasn't scared of computers.
I was acting deputy head at a school in Islington and it was December. We had snow
in the playground and it was after the Harrods bombs . We had a bomb scare
so we took all the children straight out. No coats. So we're all in the playground and
there's snow and it's cold, and there's 200 children, all very young, all without coats,
and we're having to move everyone out of the way because the police cars and the
fire-brigade are arriving. We went to the head, and said, ‘Can we see if we can get the
coats?’ He talked to the police. ‘Okay, the teachers can go in, would they all have a
look round the classrooms?’ We went in. Got the coats. Straight out. It was about
two o'clock and we'd been out there for about an hour when the fire-brigade drove off.
Then one police-car drove off and the other police officers were getting into their car.
Our head runs across to them: ‘Can we go back in?’ ‘It's up to you,’ they said. ‘What
do you mean?’ ‘Well, you'd better ring the local authority.’ So the head rang the local
authority and they said, ‘Yeah, we know you've had a bomb scare.’ ‘Can we go back
into the school?’ ‘It's up to you.’ And you can't imagine that much responsibility. As a
teacher, if anything happens to a child, you can lose your job.
Also that year a little boy went home and told his mummy that a man had played with
him in the toilets. There were three male teachers in that school and we were all
under suspicion and were interviewed by the police: ‘Where were you?’ I was
building my career, going on all the right courses, doing all the right stuff, and I could
have been a deputy head ... but why? You can lose everything that you've worked
on. As a teacher you can't indemnify yourself, and you know that the child and the
parents are going to win over the teacher every time. And the money was bad.
I gave up teaching and immediately got an invite to go to the pre-World Sailing
Championships in Japan. I was 27 and it was the first time I had ever flown which
was quite exciting. I got that work because I was a teacher. Life fitted together.
They wanted someone who was an English teacher to go out and get some sponsors
for the pre-World, fully paid, and I was out there for five weeks as a guest of a hotel
group. I had an absolute ball and I met my wife.
When I came back I was self-employed doing computing in the city. After six months
I decided I needed to join a company so I went through the motor industry and
worked for Volvo. Then I worked for RTZ. Then I suddenly found myself in hospital.
A car rolled off a jack and I was temporarily paralysed. I had to have a back
operation and a disc removed. My boss came to see me and said, ‘Apparently you
won't be able to drive for a year.’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What do you want to do – do
you want to resign or shall we sack you?’ I was in my first six months at RTZ.
I went back to supply teaching, but I wanted to get back into a corporation and
American Express were recruiting. I joined them in 1989. Two days after I joined
they launched a new financial services company so I was in that, and all of a sudden
I found myself as a financial advisor, doing pensions and investments. It was fee-
based stuff for clients. At the time it was all very radical, and I enjoyed it, and I've
been a financial advisor ever since.
I think the first time I ever saw a video camera being used was in the Geography
department. You did a presentation, it was videoed and you saw yourself do it. And
yet that was the crux of all the training I did with American Express. It was all ‘see
yourself’ self-analysis. First you tell people what you thought of your own work and
then they tell you what they thought of it. I use the same coaching models in my
sailing. Self-criticism is far harsher than criticism from anybody else, and you take it
Working for American Express was great until they sold my part of the company
about five years ago. I suddenly found myself working for United Friendly Assurance
... for about three hours. Then I resigned. Now I'm a self-employed financial advisor.
I've expanded to about 70 clients, and it pays the bills. I'm still very into systems and
e-mail and things like that – I've got a little Internet company – and life's good. I
really enjoy what I'm doing. We are planning to leave the country in two years time to
go and live in Japan because I can do my job from Japan as well as I can do it from
That's where we are with life. We have a couple of little children who are bilingual –
Japanese and English – and I'm very proud of them. In Japan school starts at the
age of seven and the eldest will be seven in the year 2000 so she'll be wanting to
start school then. And the climate in Japan is fantastic.
The Next Sailing Championship
Since I left college I've had a lot of coaching and I became a sailing coach. The
whole thing with sailing is that it's an aerofoil and you've got to have the right angle of
attack. Somebody pointed out the obvious things to me many times and eventually it
clicked. I did exactly what I was told and all of a sudden I was very fast. I tend to sail
near the front of the fleet now.
The accident  destroyed my progression in sailing. Two years ago at
Christmas, I was working at my computer in my office at home and I sneezed and my
legs cut off. I thought, ‘Oh, dear, it's gone again.’ And it was the next disc up. They
took that disc out and I learned how to walk again. To me it's always, ‘Where's the
next championship, I've got to get fit for that?’ So we got fit for the one in Australia.
Coming back from Australia I decided it was time to learn how to ski. We called in at
Japan, I took lessons from an individual tutor and I fell over on the second lesson and
snapped the cruciate ligaments in my knee. That's another year out of sailing. They
now want to take the knee-cap away but that would mean that I can't sail next year
and we've entered a big Championship in Japan. I've lost two stone in the last two
months because I want to get back into condition for sailing. It's what motivates me
to do things. Yes, there's the family and all that. They're important but our whole
lifestyle wouldn't be the same if it wasn't for going sailing. My wife has now become
a very good sailor and we compete together. I can clean my mind out just by thinking
about boats. Sailing is total relaxation although it's very energetic at the time.
Regrets? I wish I'd sailed from the age of about ten and done all the useful stuff. At
our championships last year there was a 78-year-old man and he beat me, so there's
still hope for the future. You just get more experienced and better. I could fill your
tape with sailing stories.
What Use is a Degree?
Would I do the course again? Probably not. I'd train as an accountant or go and
work for Barclays Bank at sixteen. I've been involved with a lot of recruitment over
the last 10 or 15 years, and I'm completely cynical about people's CVs. I'm not
interested in degrees. It stuns me how people have so much faith in degrees, as if
they are the be-all and end-all. My degree has not meant anything. I did a BEd – it
was another year to do honours – and I've never found myself in a situation where
anybody's said, ‘I've got a first, therefore I'll get this job.’ I work with colleagues who
have no qualifications, not even O levels, but they are extremely clever and earning a
couple of hundred thousand a year. I'm not switched on by the money side – as long
as I've got enough I'm happy – but I don't really see that qualifications have much
bearing. Successful people in the City tend to have been very successful in a sport
or music or another activity. The ones who rise to the top of companies and
corporations tend to have reached a high standard independently of their education.
They are very confident people and other people respect them and want to be with
them and around them.
Mine is a wonderful job but no-one tells you about it when you're a kid. No-one tells
you to go and work as an insurance salesman, or a car salesman or an estate agent,
and yet there are people with the most fantastic quality of life doing those jobs
professionally. What degree do you need for those jobs?
When we came to college there were people at Wheatley doing the foundation
course in accountancy. They were the lowest of the low because they were on a
one-year course, and yet some of those people went on to do their further
qualifications in accountancy and then became actuaries and are now my clients,
earning hundreds of thousands a year, and they're jetting off round the world doing
consultancy work. Nobody ever told me about that one. The curriculum was that you
did your A levels and then you got your degree. Looking back at the schools career
progression, you're not really told about what this degree is going to do for you. The
nice thing about doing the BEd was that you were going to be a teacher at the end,
so you actually had something you could go and get a job with.
At American Express we looked at how you have a successful team, and to have a
successful team you have to have the balance of personalities, so I recognise the
expressives and the drivers and the amiables. I know I'm analytical because I
analyse everything, and most of my clients are drivers. But you have to have them
all. No-one points these things out to you when you're at school, and no-one says to
you, ‘Hey, you're not a driver, you can't operate like that, that's not your style.’ No-
one ever taught you to recognise those things as you were going through. Careers
advice could be so much better.
The problems in group work, whatever the course, is that you have the doers and
you have the people who are along for the ride, and you have the people who have
ideas and you have the people who are trying to do. There's always different ways to
approach things and there's always a huge amount of conflict that has to be resolved
before you actually get round to doing anything. Part of the work that we did with
American Express was to accept that when you were building a team you looked for
the complementary people.
One thing that Oxford taught me was that I am very good at revising the night before
and the morning of the exam and useless the week before.
I've had to take lots of professional exams but I've learned to control my short-term
memory. I'm very good at concepts but not detail. Then you collect famous quotes,
like that of Henry Ford, who had never passed an exam in his life. Someone
interviewing Ford was trying to make out that he wasn't a very clever man. ‘Well ask
me a question,’ Ford said. So the interviewer asked him a question. ‘I don't know
the answer to that,’ said Ford, ‘But if you'd like to give me one minute I'll call in
someone that does.’
I used to love the spatial-awareness stuff – walking around the towns. That had a big
effect on me and it's something I still like doing – the sensation of going from space
to space. I've kept lots of the town trails I've been on. I've got them all on file and
one day I'll go on the Oxford one again. Those sorts of things – how you looked at
your environment – had a big effect.
For example, to me the Japanese landscape is devastated. It's mostly volcanic
mountains, terraced all the way up with ‘hats’ of trees at the top. When it's covered
with snow it looks beautiful but in the summer it's just fields. Then, after my second
visit to Japan, I was on a train to Chelmsford and I looked out of the window and I
suddenly realised that our landscape was exactly the same. I saw a steep hill with a
crown of trees at the top and the rest of it was fields. This is the concept of how you
perceive other people's environment in the way that people want you to. What is
shown on the television here about Japan is not the Japan that I know.
In 1982 Wendy Jarman was one of three final-year Geography students who made a
video of the field trip to Amsterdam. We watched the 40-minute documentary several
times while working on this project. The film starts with shots of the Minis and Morris
1000s in the Oxford Polytechnic car-park and ends with a class session some weeks
after the students had returned to Oxford.
‘This video intends to evaluate how students can benefit from a field trip,’ says
Wendy Jarman, a softly spoken narrator, a few minutes into the film.
When contacted in July 1998, she agrees immediately to an interview but it is ‘a question
of time’. As the mother of three young children, she is very busy during the summer.
The interview eventually takes place in September. Her husband looks after their
two-year-old while we sit at the dining-room table in a lovely family home on the
outskirts of Winchester, Hampshire. The sun shines in.
The first thing we talk about is ‘Amsterdam '82’ but Wendy Jarman doesn't have a
copy of the field-trip video and hasn't seen it in the 16 years since she graduated with
a lower-second degree in Geography and History. She is now 37 years old, and her
children are eight, six and two.
Choosing the Degree
I think I came to be doing a degree because I came from a family where you went on
and did a degree. My two brothers both went to university and got good degrees, so
it was just a natural progression for me, and if it hadn't been for my parents I don't
think I would have naturally chosen it.
I chose Geography and History because I felt they were broad subjects. My aim was
to go into social work and when I went to the careers people at school they said,
‘Don't do Sociology, it's too narrow, do something broader so that you've got more
things open to you in case you change your mind about social work.’
My A levels were Geography, History and English, so it naturally followed that I'd do
a Geography-History degree. And the Human Geography element appealed to me
greatly because I saw it being linked to Sociology. I really wanted to do Sociology –
that was my big interest – but I was guided by the careers people. Plus my parents.
Back in the late seventies, Sociology was seen as a very left-wing, trendy thing to do.
The Geography definitely stood out. I felt the History was very much ‘sit in front of a
lecturer and be lectured to’. I didn't like my History at all. In fact I still dream about it
now. It's always a bit of a fear that I couldn't do it. I found the History very hard,
whereas I loved the Geography. The Geography wasn't easy but it got my interest so
I was very happy to go away and work at it and read around it. Whereas the History
... I think I did German History and all sort of high-falutin things that were above me.
A lot of theories. I couldn't get to grips with the History and I didn't enjoy it very
much. The Geography was quite the opposite.
It was a very sociable degree. Very informal. Very relaxed atmosphere. The one
thing I do remember, apart from the Amsterdam video, was doing a public inquiry. A
piece of land was being ‘put up for sale’ and we were put in different interest groups
– three in each group. Our group had to represent Shelter and say why Shelter
should have this bit of land. I remember thoroughly enjoying that. That experience is
still with me now. I can remember the research into it, sitting up in front of the group,
heading this inquiry, and there were questions from the floor and debates going on,
and that was brilliant. We all worked together very much as a team and we were
able to answer all these questions. There was a lot of adrenaline and it was good fun
but at the same time we were having to think on the spot. To me that was the start of
public speaking and confidence-building really. I do remember that inquiry, and I
always think of that as being probably one of my greatest learning curves there.
I do remember the Amsterdam video. I don't think I starred in it very much but I
helped behind the scenes. We went on a field trip to Amsterdam just after Christmas
in our last year. And I think the project was set up to show the benefits of field trips
for future students. Other groups did projects on Batt. Our project was to make the
film and then present it in its finished state. Then it could be used with future
students: ‘This is a Geography field trip. This is what you will do and what you can
get from it.’ I think the idea came from Alan Jenkins and David Pepper. I don't know
how I even got chosen for it. I might have volunteered for it. I don't know.
There were three of us – Peter Lay, John Crowther and myself – and we did the
camera-work and all the editing afterwards. That was another confidence-building
exercise, because we had to do a lot of work afterwards, a lot of voice-overs. I felt very
conspicuous all the time, especially hearing my own voice on tape. It took up a lot of
time when we came back to Oxford. An awful lot of time. Every spare minute was
spent doing that video, and this was in our third year when we had a lot of work on.
The three of us spent a lot of time huddled together in little rooms with the machines.
We followed the other students in Amsterdam and asked them what they were doing.
We had a video-camera on a tripod. I remember carrying that around all the time.
When we went back to Oxford we edited it on one of those old machines with the
reels. The lads were both forceful characters and I was very much the one in the
middle. Diplomacy came into it a lot because they couldn't always agree on which
bits should be used. I remember trying to be tactful. At the end of the day it wasn't
an awful lot to do with me.
We also went to Scotland. One thing I remember about that field trip is that we had
Radio 1 playing on the coach and there was some really dreadful stuff on the news –
Newsbeat in those days – and Alan Jenkins was telling us how not to take the news
at face-value. I remember him saying, ‘You can't just take this, get underneath it, find
out what it really is.’
There was an Urban History module, all to do with urban growth. I always remember
that because it was just so relevant really. The trip to Glasgow and Edinburgh
highlighted that. We went to the Gorbals and we went to new towns outside
Edinburgh. All that was being put in front of us in the classroom or the lecture-room
was being backed up by us seeing it ourselves.
I was in lodgings for the first term with a large family. Two of us. Another girl and
myself. We had one bedroom and I think the family shared two bedrooms between
them. It was quite small. Then we moved into a house with another girl, so there
were three of us sharing a house out at Temple Cowley.
It was a lot of general drinking and eating really. We spent a lot of time in the new
Student Union bar because it was cheap – as you do – or in some of the pubs in
Oxford. Life was quite simple really. There wasn't an awful lot to do, and for most of
us it was done in the Student Union bar.
There was a united group on the Geography course that were very friendly with the staff,
and there were those on the outside of that group. I think at times it caused problems
because they were very ‘in’ with the staff and there was some underlying resentment
that they were so pally. But on the whole I think everybody got on very well.
I worked in Sainsbury's in the Westgate Centre – Friday night and all day Saturday –
and I worked during vacations. One holiday I stayed in Oxford and I worked in
Sainsbury's a lot of the time. I quite enjoyed that. I always felt that the Oxford people
were just inundated by students and it was nice to get in and meet some of the locals.
And I did quite a lot of voluntary work while I was there. I worked with a little girl from a
big family. I can't remember what her problems were, but I took her out and spent time
with her. We had a lot of fun. I took her to places where she had never been, like the
University Parks, where we watched the swans in their nest. And I worked with some
old people up in Temple Cowley. I used to have a Wednesday afternoon free and that
is what I would do. Social work was something I had wanted to do for a long time. I
did voluntary work at school while doing my A levels, and when I went to Oxford Poly I
wrote straightaway to Oxford Social Services.
I think the friendships that I had at college were very different to any relationships I'd
had before. I found it quite unusual to be in such close contact with people. I'm a
confident person but I also don't like people too close. The group work meant that
we were in very close contact as a Geography group. We were together a lot of time
– socially and at work. It could be very intense at times, which is why I was quite
happy to get out and go and work at Sainsbury's and do my voluntary work, because
I could switch off from student life, with all its ins and outs.
I finished in 1982 and got a job straightaway – working in a residential children's
home in London. The idea was that I would do some practical social work, get some
experience and then possibly go on and do what was then the CQSW [Certificate of
Qualification in Social Work]. So I spent two years doing that job and found that it
wasn't quite what I wanted to do. During that time they closed a couple of the houses
that I'd been working in, so I moved around quite a bit. I found that distressing
because of course the children were also moved to different places. I disagreed with
what was going on, so after two years, in 1984, I decided, ‘Right, this is just not me,
I'm not happy with this. I've had enough, I just want to do something else, I just want
to have a bit of fun.’ So I took some time out.
I took various holidays and travelled a bit. I spent the summer of 1984 in Europe and
in 1985 I went to Malaysia. One of the girls I had shared a house with in Oxford was
Malaysian and we'd maintained contact. I went over and stayed with her for six
weeks. She was working, so I would go out around Malaysia during the week and
come back to her at weekends. That was great.
Then I came back to my Mum and Dad's house and I had no job and no money. In
Hampshire they wouldn't take me into a residential home without some residential
qualification, which of course I didn't have. So if I had gone back in it would have
been at the bottom and I wasn't prepared to do that. And I didn't want to go back to
London. I'd come from a small town where everybody knows everybody. Petersfield
is a bit too small, but London was just too big and too anonymous for me.
I suppose in some ways I gave up on social work very quickly. I don't know whether
I'd become disillusioned when I worked in London. I suppose I'd had a false
impression of it to start with – the idea that you were helping people. In some
respects you weren't helping them at all. You were pushing them from place to
place. Also, I think I had a bit of a guilt thing. I'd built quite a good relationship with
one of the girls in the home that I worked in, and, consequently, when I left, it was yet
another blow to her. She was greatly upset and that influenced my decision. I
thought, ‘If I stick at this job, I'm going to have this for the rest of my life. Do I think
about that and take it into consideration or do I just get out?’
So, after many months of being unemployed I went and did a TOPS course (as they
were then) in secretarial work. I was back being a student again and I enjoyed that
element. I finished that and got a job working with Portsmouth Polytechnic [now
Portsmouth University] for the head of the department for Economic History. I stayed
there for two years. They were a very young staff, and they were good fun.
Then a new leisure centre was being built in Portsmouth, a great big building with
wonderful facilities – supposedly. I got the job as PA to the general manager, which
one would have thought was quite a good job, but I should have realised there were
problems when they said they couldn't pay me very much. It was just chaos. But it
was a great experience. I'm very glad that I did it. The building wasn't finished by the
time it was supposed to be finished, and I was fending off the press. I spent a lot of
my time trouble-shooting. I was working ten hours a day for six days a week. I like
working but not to that extent.
So I got a job in Highbury College in Cosham. I went in there as PA to the college
secretary and got back into normal nine-to-five, five days a week, and relaxed a bit.
Then I got married. My husband is a building surveyor with the local authority. He's
never been away to college. He always thinks I'm the brainy one but it's not true at
all. He's the one who can do the Telegraph crossword.
And then I had our first child, so I gave up work at the college. I work now in the
Hampshire Record Office, part-time as an archives assistant. So I've kept my hand
in. I like being at home, but I like something else for the brain, to strike a balance
with three children.
I work on Fridays and Saturdays. On Saturdays you get people for whom it's a
hobby, but obviously you get academics coming in, researching for their PhDs and
students doing dissertations. So it's very much a people-orientated job, dealing with
the public, but at the same time I have to think a bit.
I lost touch with my Malaysian friend. The last time I saw her was when I got
married. She was a Hindu and she had a Sikh boyfriend in Oxford who none of the
family knew about, and then they found out and it was dreadful. Her father died while
she was in Oxford as well, which was a tremendous blow to her. She had a terrible
time, one way or another, and she stopped writing. I don't really know what
happened to her. I keep meaning to sit down and write to her at the last address I
had, but I haven't done it.
The one person I do keep contact with is Sue Harvey, who was also a Geography
student. She went on to Bath to do the teacher-training year. She's still a teacher
and is now in the East End of London. She's doing very well.
What Use is a Degree?
The only time I've thought about my notes was after I'd spoken to you [on the phone].
I thought, ‘I must find my notes, I know I haven't got them here.’ We were at my
parents' house and I said, ‘Do you know where any of my notes are?’ And my
mother found them. There were a few notes but largely it was a rough copy of my
dissertation. And the inquiry, the ‘Shelter’ business. Other than that I haven't
referred to them at all. I haven't had a need to really. None of the jobs have really
related to them.
There was a lot of communication work in the Geography. I don't know whether it
was chicken or egg but I think that helped me a lot with the confidence and relating to
people. A lot of the jobs I've done have been dealing with people. I was dealing with
students in two of my jobs. The one at Portsmouth Polytechnic was very student-
orientated. I was able to relate to them very well. I was probably 25 or 26 then and I
could remember being a student.
I am very environmentally conscious but I don't know where that's come from.
Possibly that is from my degree but environmental issues have become more high
profile now than they were. I can't remember anything particularly from my degree
but I think that we as a family are as environmentally sound as we can be. Generally
I'm very aware and I think that we've promoted environmental issues as a family.
I think my degree has opened a lot of doors for me. On paper people have seen that
I have a degree, and I think that that has made a lot of difference to me getting a job
or not getting a job. The job at Portsmouth Polytechnic was my first job as a
secretary and nobody could give me a reference to my secretarial skills anywhere so
they took a risk with me. And my degree definitely got me this last job because they
had so many applicants that I think they could be very picky. I think having a degree
got me in there, which is great because hopefully that is where I will stay. It has
given me advantages.
Apart from anything else, I think it's given me a broader outlook on life. It's very
narrow at the moment, but that's because I've got three children and my life is very
involved in what they're doing, but I don't see that as the end. Once our youngest
child is at school I will go back to work. But the degree has given me a lot of interest
in things that are happening all over the place, not just in my home. I still listen to the
news, and try and get underneath it and break it all up and not believe any of it and
wonder what is really going on. I think that makes me quite cynical. I'm very
analytical. I analyse people something dreadful sometimes.
I always I wish that I had had time out before my degree because I would have got
an awful lot more out of it with a bit of life experience. My first advice to anyone
would be to take some time out before doing a degree. It was discouraged at our
age. I think I would encourage people to go away and get a taste of what was going
on in the outside world and then come back and see what they want to do and what
interests them. Not to do something because it's going to get them a job at the end
of the day. Just because I've done a degree, I don't think I'm particularly brainy as
such. Academically I don't think I'm brilliant. I just think it did a lot of other things for
me really. Socially.
James Hollett works in a plush office building in the West End of London. The man
at reception asks for details, telephones ahead and points to a comfortable chair in
The interview takes place in a quiet wine-bar nearby. James Hollett prefers that a
tape-recorder not be used. He is concerned that he might freeze. He is very
convivial but he is not used to being interviewed and needs to get back to work in 40
minutes or so.
James Hollett is 38 and has an upper second in Anthropology and Geography. He
comes from the Home Counties and now lives in Kent. It is late-September.
I have nothing but fond memories from that time. I wasn't aware that it was an
innovative course – we were never told that it was experimental – but it was a lively and
varied course. The teachers were concerned with getting students to think in different
ways. All the modules – and all the teachers – had a purpose. The staff weren't at all
aloof. I wouldn't say they were our friends but they helped a lot on that level.
There was a team-spirit amongst the Geography staff. John Gold. Alan Jenkins.
David Pepper. Peter Keene. They split in half. In one half there were the quieter
orthodox teachers of Physical Geography who didn't feel they were trying to convey
anything new. The main stable influence in the department was Peter Keene, who I
liked a lot. The others were a bit nutty. He was the sanest of them. But it's hard to
make Physical Geography whacky. It's difficult to convey rocks and mountains in a
The two people who had the most effect, who taught the most interesting courses (or
the courses I was more interested in) were David Pepper and Alan Jenkins. David
Pepper was very serious, maybe because he was giving up smoking at the time! He
was too serious to take too seriously! He was quite left wing and very ecologically
minded. At the time, as a public schoolboy, I hadn't come across anyone with vague
left-wing tendencies and it had an influence on me.
The reason David was good was that he made frivolous students take a social and
political angle to things. He made you think about it even if you ended up not
agreeing with it. He made young people think about issues in a more constructive
way. It made me more critical. Even now, my nature is cynical and unpolitical, and
that came from that course. I took on lots of those views. He was trying to lead you
in that direction and get you to think critically and look at things from an anti-status
quo situation. Maggie Thatcher had just come in, and halfway through our course
the Falklands War was on. David didn't like the government in power. He disagreed
with the way it was at the time.
In Anthropology there wasn't the same interaction as there was in the Geography.
Anthropology was much more academic. The anthropologists were not really
inputting, not placing things in perspective. There was no modern-day relevance to
what they were saying. It was more a question of regurgitating.
I enjoyed the courses a lot and I did quite well. There was a ridiculous range of
courses on offer. Most of them were domestic-oriented but there was an American
chap who lectured on Asia and there was a China course with Alan Jenkins. In that
China course I did a project on the geographical forms you could perceive in Chinese
There was a lady who worked there – Heather Jones. My abiding memory of her is
of the occasion she took us all pot-holing. It was my first time pot-holing and I was in
front of her and she had given me a duff light in my helmet. I had to go into the hole
first with a duff light in my helmet and that was my first time!
Everyone on the course seemed very happy. They liked the courses and we were a
close-knit group. I remember faces but I can't remember names. I'm sure some of
them are in London. We could get a few to meet up. That might be an idea. It would
be interesting to see them again.
I remember Amsterdam. We probably got up to the usual things that students got up
to in Amsterdam. I have an artistic-appreciation streak in me and in Amsterdam I did
a project on the commercial development of Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th
centuries and what could be seen through the art.
Then I did a joint Geography and Anthropology dissertation. I'm not Jewish but my
dissertation was on the origins of the Jewish attachment to Palestine as developed in
the Hebrew Bible. John Gold was involved. He did that sort of thing. Sacred space.
Urban Geography. Territoriality. I was interested in religion and my project got me
into Oxford University.
Both courses were enjoyable and quite varied, and they enabled me to get better
results than I had promised before that point in my education. I got a 2:1 in
Geography and Anthropology. Polytechnic courses were excellent for those who
were unable to get on a one-subject course. It gave me the academic confidence to
do a degree afterwards at Oxford University.
After graduating I took a year off and did some travelling and a few courses abroad.
That was to fill in time before doing my Masters degree. I then went on to do a two-
year MPhil degree in Arabic and Geography, which shocked quite a few people at
school. The Polytechnic course was stimulating enough to bring in people who were
not so naturally academic and enable them to go on and do a further degree. I
studied Modern Middle Eastern Studies. I was interested in that part of the world.
Then I started work in the city when I was 25 and that was it. There was a bit of
money in it and it was an easy thing to do. I wondered about doing other things –
less money-related things or more academic things – and I thought about taking the
Ancient History study further. I still read books that would have fitted in with the
course that I did. At the moment I'm reading a book on Geology.
Since 1985 I've been a stockbroker, which would probably horrify David Pepper. In
1985 it was easy to get a job in the city. If I had graduated in the early nineties I
probably wouldn't have done it. It would have been too difficult. Life would have
gone in a different way – into academia or a more unorthodox angle.
What Use is a Degree?
The course was in no way geared to getting a job. It was about stimulating brain
cells and making people think. It has a subconscious effect. I'm more
environmentally sensitive than most people and more attuned. You are what you
have been exposed to.
The Class of 1982
Croeso i Gymru. We are in the lounge of a very pleasant house on the edge of a city
in South Wales. Our hostess looks very fit and relaxed. She is wearing a sweat-shirt
and jogging trousers.
Katherine Thomas graduated with an upper second in Anthropology and Geography.
She went to Oxford Polytechnic as a 20-year-old and is now thirty-six. She has a
gentle Welsh accent and is so softly-spoken that at times her voice barely carries to
the tape-recorder. The interview takes place in late-August.
Choosing the Course
I can't remember why I chose Oxford. Maybe it was just a romantic notion, the idea
of being in Oxford. The subjects were already chosen – I was quite happy with those
– and it may have been a question of which place sounded more attractive for those
I knew there weren't many places offering this thing called a modular degree but I
didn't really know what a modular degree was. I think my only impression was that it
was done in bits, whatever that meant. The idea that you would have far more control
and choice through the three years didn't occur to me at all. That was a nice surprise.
I had the results and off I went. I think I was two years late going anyway. It just took
me longer to get my A levels. I rebelled and didn't achieve very much at school so I
was a little late getting there.
The romanticism of Oxford was as I had expected it to be. The scenery and
architecture were marvellous. I got a sense of place from just being there. It was
very comfortable as far as I can remember. I did feel a sense of belonging. Whether
you were part of these beautiful colleges or not, you felt that something was going to
rub off. It made you feel that if you were going to achieve academically, this was the
place to do it. And I'd travelled quite a lot with my family when I was a child, so I
wasn't ‘a little Welsh girl in a big place’.
You couldn't afford to have a poor term on the Modular Course. If you didn't put your
twopence worth in from the word go and understand exactly what was expected of
you then you were going to fail from term one. I can't remember any drop-outs. I
suppose there must have been some. I can remember that you didn't immediately
need to make a definitive choice about the title of your degree. I started a basic
Geology module and a generic Geography module, and I didn't have to choose
between Geology and Geography until some time later. Geology was just a totally
different language to me – it didn't mean a single thing – so I ditched it and started
doing Geography modules. I knew I'd made the right choice then.
If you couldn't keep up with the pace of the work then you were lost, but to me the
work was like food. You felt drained and exhausted or apprehensive when you were
doing a piece of work, and you felt ten foot tall when you'd done it. Whether you'd
failed or succeeded was something else but the challenge was the thing. It was one
challenge after another – doing the work, scribbling it down and presenting it.
Exhausting. You would think, ‘Oh, God, I've done three essays this term, they take
me four days or a week to write, how am I get the motivation or enthusiasm to write
another one?’ But I must have done it, I must have dealt with it.
I loved the Geography element of the course. I'm sure if I had a look through my files
I'd find plenty of memories of things I hated or things I'd rather forget, but generally
speaking, towards the second and third year especially, I absolutely loved it – the
challenge of it, the way you had more choice, and the opportunity to knuckle down
and stretch yourself rather than being led and stretched by others. That suited my
way of handling work. I found that very comfortable.
My impression really is that you were half-led, but it was left up to you to discover
yourself. Obviously you were assessed and judged on what you researched at some
point, but it was largely up to you to come up with the goods rather than just go to
lectures and be fed them and churn them out at the end of term. I was never very
good at exams in those days but with continuous assessment and important exams
at the end of every term I became very blasé about them by the end of the third year.
Any fear I had about exams when I was in school was completely gone and has
One thing sticks out. I can't remember which module it was, but it was probably in
the third year because those are the modules that I remember best for the
innovations. The module was called something like History of Geographical Thought
and it had a strong element of role play. You had a tenet to argue, you were given a
role to play, and you had to go away and immerse yourself in the technical side of
your argument, then come back and present it in such a way that convinced
geographers of the day, regardless of what tenets they held. For example, what
causes climate change? If there were three tenets to prove, we had to go out and
research all of them, come back and present it in a way that you would win on the
day and I thought that was absolutely wonderful. I can remember feeling quite
scared about it at first – I think we all were – but again you got quite blasé. We knew
that if we were willing to envelope ourselves in the role, and research it to the best of
our ability, that was enormously stretching. It was also quite unusual, judging by the
experiences of friends who had gone to other places of learning.
Far more of my peers had a good time and then fretted themselves stupid at the end
of the third year, whereas the third year was not much different for me. In fact I think
I crammed as many modules as I could into the first and second years, so the work
load got less in my third year. It was more challenging in the third year, but there
seemed to be more time to achieve everything that was needed, so my third year
was quite comfortable. It was just a question of maintaining the pace. I remember
coming back here in the Christmas and Easter vacations. I was enjoying being back
here but looking forward to going back to Oxford again, whereas I was meeting other
people who were stressed out about what was in front of them the following term
because they had finals at the end of the third year. It was exhausting for them.
I remember one module where we had some sort of court. We had two advocates
and the lecturer sat on a panel. You had to research it down to the bone so you
knew what you were talking about – I hope I did anyway. One or two of us got blasé
about it. We used to dress up in the role. It was great. It didn't take away the
seriousness of the exercise, it didn't negate the aims, and if you won it was great. I
remember two role-plays where I had to be a feminist, and I wasn't a feminist at all. It
was just fun to have the content and know what you were going to say, why you were
going to say it, and then dress up. So I'd go in something baggy and veggie and I'd
introduce points and throw in lines like ‘Oh, you would say that, you're a man’ and
they'd all be laughing. It was fine as long as it didn't negate the learning exercise. A
bit of wickedness didn't seem to matter too much.
There was another one where I dressed up as the lecturer. It was something to do
with Physical Geography – the passing on of the aesthetics of Geography. I was
quite happy with that subject. I assimilated that beautifully. It meant a lot to me. And
I associated the subject with this particular chap – Peter Keene. He must have been
the one who made Physical Geography mean something important to me. You don't
have to put this in, I can see no reason to flatter him!
This court, whatever it was, must have been something akin to what Peter Keene
was delivering to us that term, so I dressed up as him. A couple of friends made me
a beard and found me a crash helmet. I remember trying to put the accent on. He
had a Devon burr, and the Devon burr with the Welsh accent was just superb. It was
so much fun. And we won the court, for whatever reason.
One module had an exercise about extracting energy from wave machines, and you
and somebody else had to be the scientists responsible for this principle. You had to
go away, research it and come back and present it to the entire year. And there was
a prize of £20,000 or something like that. It never came of course.
That was an experience to get through as well. Having to deal with it. Some people
were shaking. There were so many instances of having to get up and present.
Because it was done so robustly you got used to that and it gave you confidence. It's
a shame really, however successful or bad I was at those, I remember them for
dressing up like Peter Keene.
I remember that the content was attractive. Parts of it were as boring as hell, as
parts always are in a three-year course. There were times when I just wanted to get
the stupid module out of the way and get on to something good. There were different
characters involved in the teaching, and hence different styles, but there was nobody
that really made you think, ‘Oh, God, it's him today, I really can't bear it.’ They all had
their weaknesses, as everyone does, but I think the collective strength of the team
delivering to us was such that the contrast in styles just made the whole course, as
far as I was concerned. And that, I think, coupled with the content and how they
were stretching us, was just a great package.
I associate Peter Keene with Physical Geography. The climate guy was, er, Derek
Elsom. He was a nice chap. Very approachable and very helpful. I liked him and I
found him quite straightforward. There was a third-year module, something like
Geographical Thought. I can't remember the name of the guy who taught it. I can
see his face but I can't remember his name. I remember Alan Jenkins. He was the
older guy, wasn't he? He did some of the more social modules, as far as I
remember. He was very bumptious and giving and inspiring. And so was this other
chap. He was very sardonic and gave in a way that you really wanted to know more.
I don't remember much of the others. There was some boring teaching and there
was some fantastic teaching as well, but you really felt that you were being given the
cutting-edge of geographical thought at that time. This particular module, we were
stretched so much.
I think in those days it was probably unheard of to get a first. I don't think anybody in
my year got one. A two-one was just about as much as the majority of people got,
and I got a two-one and I was thrilled. At the end of three years you always feel you
could do better but I don't think I could have done much better, and I certainly
couldn't have enjoyed it much more.
The overriding memory I have of the whole course was that the aesthetic element
was always very strong. That very much appealed to me. There were times when
you had to go out and analyse something, but you were always made to appreciate
the aesthetics of what you were seeing and analysing. That might have been
because of the personality of the lecturer. I don't know. I have a feeling that it was.
The Physical Geography field trips were superb. I can remember one where we
were on the Welsh borders, and we were put into groups and dumped out miles
away from other groups. We all did the same exercise – it was surveying or mapping
– but we did it on different terrain. You were free to do as you wanted, but I can't
remember any time anybody not treating it so seriously that we couldn't carry on work
in the evening. The exercises continued long into the evening before we were let go
– straight to the bar – but it was an enormous sense of freedom. You were not led so
much that you were out for a jolly, doing a bit of work out in the lovely countryside.
The countryside was there to be analysed and appreciated.
We went somewhere in North Wales and we weren't just taken around foothills of a
glacial area, we were carted up into this hanging valley, and then we actually climbed
up into this hanging valley. Then we were allowed to go away and analyse what it
was we had spent half a day climbing to. It was far more hands-on than you would
normally expect a field trip to be, even a Physical Geography field trip.
On the Climate one we had to do something about urban heat retention. We had to
do it at a particular time of the year and under particular climatic conditions and the
only way we could do it was to go out in the middle of the night and take
measurements between midnight and four o'clock in the morning. We were
wandering around on foot, trying to get to places where we'd get proper readings
from these instruments we'd been given. It was just great. It was liberating.
There was a field trip somewhere in Devon. Something to do with marine life or
marine features. It was pouring with rain and conditions were atrocious, but that
didn't stop anything. Again, they were leading us into the work to be done, but then
we had to go out and do it and come back at four or five in the evening and then write
it up when we got back to college.
We went to the Centre for Alternative Technology. That must have been a residential
course because there was a fuss about some of the lecturers staying in Maccynlleth,
away from the centre. I hadn't been there before, so there was novelty value in the
environment. We were taken to observe things and it was hands-on as well.
I enjoyed the freedom. I was always comfortable with the freedom. I didn't necessarily
enjoy the first year because we were cooped with people that I had nothing in common
with, and I gravitated towards somebody who a mature student in her late-twenties.
She dropped out in the second year so we didn't share all those college years. She
and I have kept in touch for a few years. She'll ring me and it feels as though we were
never apart. We were separate from the others because we considered ourselves
much older and more mature than the 18-year-olds. I haven't kept in touch with
anyone else. I'm one of those people who tend to compartmentalise their life. There's
a geographical element as well as I'm living in Wales.
The first year was probably hell. Cooped up with these people just wasn't my style.
They were ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ practising being drunk and playing music. Then I lived in the
same house for my second and third years, with three girls and a bloke – the girls stayed
and the bloke changed a few times – and that was quite nice. It was good fun and the
freedom was there. Okay, we were there to enjoy the freedom, being away from our
parents, but it had never been so dreadful at home that I didn't want to go back.
I was a great movie-goer anyway, but there was the opportunity to see a wider range
of films in a place like Oxford because of the student culture. There was a cinema
called Not the Moulin Rouge. And I remember going to a cinema off the Cowley
Road which had a 3D structure with Al Jolson's hands sticking out [The Penultimate
Picture Plaza]. They used to have off-the-road films or classics. I saw a similar
culture near Boston when I was in the United States and I gravitated towards that
because it was familiar to me. Harvard and Oxford are similar in some ways.
I'd always felt a bit older than people in my peer group but eighteen to twenty-
something made a real difference. It probably evened out later, when we'd all had
the same experiences, but the younger ones had more to learn when they got to
college – how to deal with life on their own. Living with their parents, they probably
studied at night and then went out for a drink on Friday night, and the parents made
those decisions for them. I remember thinking, ‘It must be painful for you, learning
how to budget for food.’ I can never remember having to deal with any of those
problems at college. I was sliding into a different phase of life rather than starting
something scary. With hindsight, that did show a certain difference between us. For
the youngest students, it was ‘Right, I'm 200 miles away from my mother and I'm off’.
To me it was ‘So much to do, so much to see.’ I did sometimes want to get plastered
with certain friends but it was not the same. The prioritisation seemed different.
Before I'd gone to college I'd been involved with a Girl Guide group and we'd gone
swimming. When I was old enough, 18, I became a professionally qualified teacher,
so I was a swimming teacher before I went to college. In Oxford I linked in with
Peers School in Blackbird Leys, and I'd go to that school a couple of mornings a
week and help out with the children. That was voluntary.
I also got a job working for a cleaning agency called Oxford Aunts. That was extra
dosh. I was getting a full grant in those days so that was quite helpful, but that
cleaning job lasted for the best part of a year, probably the third year when I had
more time to myself anyway.
I think I was fed up of being a student. I'd had enough. I think at that age, early
twenties, an age difference matters more than it does later on, so by the end of the
third year I'd had more than enough of student life. I just wanted to get out and do,
but I had no idea what.
Through Peers School I met an exchange teacher from the United States. He knew I
was about to graduate and he knew someone who was looking for a nanny and au
pair for a year, so I went and nannied for children for a year in Boston,
Massachusetts, because of that contact. That was great. It was an adventure. Then
I came back. I was due to come back anyway, but a death in the family meant that I
came back quite quickly, after a year.
I needed some structure. I remember being quite worried, ‘What am I going to do
next year?’ I had no focus and direction, and that was quite important to me at the
time, so I drifted into a PGCE [Postgraduate Certificate of Education] and I was
launched. I decided that if I had any natural talent at all it was probably with children.
I knew I had made the right decision and sensed that I'd found my niche. I'd found
something I was good at. I'd had a bit of an adventure, been to college, and I was
more than happy to come back and settle, and look forward to the challenge of a
happy working life and I'd found what I was looking for.
I went for secondary education because I didn't think I had the patience for the little
ones. I did a PGCE at Aberystwyth, did very well, was offered quite a few jobs but
turned them down because I was on the point of getting married – on passionate
grounds – and the location of the jobs were not right.
My subject at that time was Geography, because it was relatively fresh in my mind
and I felt it was a subject that should be taught. It was such an all-encompassing
benefit to a young person, and I had had a positive experience of Geography for
three years. I had youth and enthusiasm, and I was doing what I wanted to do. I did
quite well. As I said, the jobs kept tumbling in, but I didn't take them. If things had
been different I would have probably loved every minute of being a Geography
teacher to eleven to 18 year olds, because they are at a point where they can
assimilate and be enthused about things. I had a taste of teaching and I enjoyed the
experience very much. That's over ten years ago now.
Aberystwyth was a very nice place, a comfortable place, but I never regretted going
to Oxford at all. My husband used to work in Oxford, 20 or 30 years ago, but he
doesn't remember so much about it, it's so long ago. He was of a different
generation to me and they just didn't go to college so it's an experience he's never
had. We've talked about Oxford and it would be nice to go back and see the
scenery. I'd very much like him to see where I was and what being a student is all
about. You have to be there to remember the little things.
After the PGCE I sort of drifted into local government and I've been there ever since. I
work in sport-development management. I go out to companies and construct policies,
that sort of thing. I seem to do quite well at it but I just can't take it seriously. I'm based
at a desk and the main skill, as far as I'm concerned, is organising your time and your
mind. If the ability to organise time and thought came indirectly from the challenges of
the Geography course then, yes, I can see the cause and effect but there is no
enormous skill that's asked of me in the job that I'm doing, intellectually or otherwise.
You don't have to be an intellectual high-flyer to achieve. Local government isn't built
on people like that. In my experience, there's no room for any creativity.
My job pays very well for very little. They seem to be quite satisfied with me. Hence
my regret that the intellectual exercise just doesn't occur. I can, in all honesty, trace
that back to the time in the Geography course where it was an exercise to enjoy and
see how far you can go. I remember the way you were challenged. You were never
overburdened with something that was beyond you. You would achieve something
and then, probably surreptitiously, the next challenge was that much harder
intellectually. In hindsight you grew in a nice curve rather than too much jumping
around with too much put on you. You built up to it gradually.
What Use is a Degree?
The court exercises gave me so much confidence in what we were delivering. I
never felt a single butterfly on teaching practice or now that I'm lecturing or if I'm at a
conference. It's not anything that's an obstacle to me. Having to get up and deliver a
body of knowledge, in a way that can be justified, has to be part and parcel of what
you are, but it's also a skill to learn. And you didn't get so blasé about getting up and
speaking on the Geography course because I remember you had to be questioned in
those courts, so it was about learning. In fact there was almost a malicious
enjoyment about manipulating people so that they would see it your way.
There were papers to write and there was a stringency to the marking. You worked
to parameters and there were rules for what constituted a decent piece of written
work. That's one thing that's carried over into my work life. I find it incredibly
straightforward to write things in a logical way so that they are accepted first time.
Again, I don't know whether that's because I find that part of the work easy or
whether it's because I had to produce so many decent pieces of work that had to be
passed by people who were really strict about quality. I don't know whether that
came from the Geography course. I think a large element of it did.
I remember one Anthropology tutor. I'd written something that she was impressed
with and I hadn't put a great deal of effort into it. It was something about nation
states. I'd used Wales as an example and I was off – Celtic eloquence and
ppppssshhheewww. It was decent enough for her to be impressed and she said,
‘You should go into journalism.’ I thought, ‘You're probably right.’ I'd come across as
a rampant Welsh nationalist, which I'm not, but it impressed them all anyway. If I'm
looking back now, honestly, journalism was a potential choice. I probably could, and
should, have gone that way.
It's very easy to take pity on myself. At other times you say, ‘Right, I followed this
path and I've done this, this and this’ and you become objective about it all. I make
lots of money for doing very little. Not many people can say that. You get to your
mid-thirties and you realise that what you consider a job is probably a career to other
people. I've never considered it a career at all, but now I'm in my mid-thirties and I'm
roughly where I should be for my age.
I do get very stressed out, but it's by the restrictions in local government. The public
don't see the constraints of local government. Because you work in leisure, the
public think we lounge around in free sweatshirts for events all the time and we don't.
There's no pleasure at all sometimes. There are many stresses with facility
management that the public aren't supposed to see and never will see and you're not
educated or inducted in a way that you're prepared for the responsibilities, so you
have to become master of all trades really. The more you go up, the more removed
you are, the bigger the desk.
The main thing about my degree was that I was made to stretch and every time you
were made to stretch you were made to stretch that little bit further, to assimilate
something a bit more in depth, and assimilate it quicker in order to keep up. You
were never able to sit back. That sharpens you. Then years later, if you're honest
with yourself, you realise that you're not as sharp as you were made to be then,
unless of course you are able to keep up that intellectual challenge. I think the
intensity of a degree course, whether it's modular or not, is a sharpening experience
in many ways. Because you've chosen your subjects, it's more concentrated and
more in depth than anything you've come across before, so it will sharpen you.
Coming back to Wales after my degree and having that year out of the country, my
life changed quite dramatically. A degree is a rite of passage in a way, but a good
one. In hindsight much better than I probably thought it was when I was there.
My general memories of the course itself are fond ones. My regret is that I've
probably not been stretched that much since. As I get older it's becoming more of a
regret. Unless you carry on delving, the detail falls away from you ... but if your
professional life doesn't need you to be sharp, then you find you are putting your
energies into other things. My energy is still there and I've started writing a lot and
that sharpens you. What is quite laborious is having to learn to be sharper all over
again. Again it makes you wonder how these people could pay me all this money for
doing so little intellectually.
The only direct link with the subject-matter of the course was the PGCE that I did
before I came into local government. I made the decision not to take the teaching
jobs I was offered and that was ten years ago now but I'm more than convinced that
teaching wasn't just a novelty to me. I was quite happy with teaching and at that time
it was what I was going to do. I would probably be a head of some school
somewhere, having adapted to the strains and stresses of what teaching is these
days. And I suppose I would be really enjoying it, stressed out as any other teacher,
but no more stressed than the people I work with now. In the last 12 months, I've
gone through times when I just can't bear to do the work any longer, and you think
then, ‘I could have been in exactly the same position in teaching, hating to go into
assembly in the morning and not wanting to see these youngsters and thinking I'm
wasting my life doing something that I didn't come into the profession to teach.’
If I'm honest, I regret that I've never got to test myself over a long period teaching a
subject like Geography that I had personally enjoyed and had enjoyed imparting to
others. The link with the degree is that somebody made me enjoy the subject
content, to the extent that I found it very easy, and very comforting in a way, to use
the enthusiasm, the controlled enthusiasm, supported by acting, to impart to others in
the same way, hopefully, that it was imparted to me. To combine what the students
need to know for their exams with an appreciation of the beauty of the landscape, to
tie those two together, is priceless as far as I'm concerned. It really is.
Surely Geography graduates migrate further afield than Oxfordshire, Hampshire,
London and South Wales?
Indeed, they do.
To visit Antony Squance, 34, it means a no-frills Debonair Airways flight from Luton
Airport (muffin and coffee included). He left Oxford Polytechnic with an upper second
in Cartography and Geography and now lives in a central barrio of Madrid, sharing a
first-floor flat with his Spanish girlfriend.
The floor of the flat is scattered with drawings and paintings. They are being
organised for an imminent exhibition called ‘Neither Here Nor There’ at El Gayo Arte
Galeria. It is late-September.
Why the Course?
I went to a traditional grammar school in Gloucestershire and it had very few A level
options. I'd been interested in Art since I was very young but the school had a bad
Art department and everyone told me that art won't get you a living. If Geology had
been an option at the school I might have done that at A level. Instead I did
Mathematics, Physics and Geography. I don't know why I did those subjects.
Geography was the one that interested me most, not that it particularly interested me.
I chose Geography for basic gut reasons which had nothing to do with intellectual
thoughts or academic ideas. I had a romantic, superficial view of landscape, and I
enjoyed being with people on the field trips. I wasn't interested in scientific
investigation or anything like that. I didn't think, ‘I want to go to Oxford Poly and study
Geography.’ I was pushing myself away from home. I just wanted to leave home.
I was just eighteen when I arrived and I got the impression that people who had had a
year off were much more mature, even though they were only nineteen or twenty.
When people are two and three years older than you, and they have travelled or
worked, they can have an enormous advantage in terms of personality and confidence.
When I left school I had zero years of experience – I was nought years old. Someone
who'd spent a couple of years after school was two years old and they knew a bit.
I didn't get into a hall of residence because I'd got in late. I ended up in digs with a
landlady in Hollow Way. That isn't really a long distance away from Oxford Poly but
in Oxford terms it is a long distance, especially when everyone else is in Cheney Hall
or in Cowley Road. I was a bit isolated. I moved to a nearer house – in Divinity
Road – as soon as I could. Then I got into Cheney Hall, and from then on my social
life started improving, but it took a year to get to know people.
I started up the Cartography football team. I wasn't a very good player, I organised
the team at the beginning because it was fun getting together afterwards. That was
where most of my Poly friends came from – the people I remain in contact with. Our
team lost every match ... and then we won one. We lost by scandalous amounts –
12-0, 18-6 – and then we won one 5-4 and went out and had a great piss-up. That
was a good bonding.
I felt the problem with the modular course from an educational point of view was the
way you could cynically play the system. The problem with the ten-week modular
system – and everyone says the same – is that you learn for ten weeks and then you
almost programme yourself to forget it. There's very little follow-on between modules.
Although they often said ‘module x is a prerequisite to do module y’ you didn't really
need it. There's very little structure in the whole thing. In the first year, the introductory
year, you didn't need to retain anything for more than ten weeks at a time.
I can't remember exactly how many modules we had to do. I think you had to do
something like 21, and your best 18 were counted and your worst three went off your
average list. There was a minimum and maximum for each subject and you could do
three from outside your two subjects. I did three Visual Studies modules – Art
modules – and I ended up doing as few Geography modules as possible. And three
of those I scrubbed off the averages list at the end because I did badly in them.
I went through the whole thing in that way. I got a bit of a bollocking from one
Geology lecturer. He said, ‘I'm not going to let you do this module – you look like a
stamp-collector to me.’ A ‘stamp-collector’ was someone who deliberately picked an
easy module so he could scrape through and not have to work very hard. I think the
Poly system was open to that kind of abuse. I abused it and a lot of people did.
There was a standard joke about the modular course: There's a surgeon at the
operating table and the patient desperately needs a heart transplant, and the surgeon
says, ‘I'm sorry, I didn't do that module.’ That's a reflection on the fact that the course
is very bitty. So many people told that joke, and so many people appreciated it. I felt I
came out of the degree course with too little knowledge of too many things.
I spent my last year as a student just trying to get a two-one, which I thought would
give me a better chance of getting on to a Masters and doing something I really
wanted to do later. I was playing the numbers game in the whole of my third year,
working very hard and trying to get 60 per cent. I wasn't really thinking about what I
was actually learning and the effect it would have on my future career.
When we get together now, years later, we laugh about it and our general criticism of
a Geography course is ‘It was all a load of nothing.’ Conversely it was a lot of
something. If you'd never read any philosophy or didn't know about politics then it
was quite a good way of getting a good elementary knowledge. If the definition of
good teaching is fostering learning, then the course did a very good job, but I've got a
lot of reservations about it, which I'll try to explain later.
The course was quite practically based with a lot of seminars. It was very much
student-centred in that you were given a briefing, which was supposed to inspire you,
and then you went and did the required reading. And the more reading you did the
more you got out of it, which was great because a lot of courses are spoon-fed. In
my case, because I was a bad student, I didn't respond to that in the way that I
should have done. Again I was ‘playing the system’. I spent as little time as possible
on it because I was interested in something else.
I'm not sure that students learn that much from doing student presentations in front of
other students. Or perhaps they do. I didn't. I was useless at public speaking.
Before and after. I didn't gain anything from the small amounts of public speaking
that we did. I remember one we did on cloud-seeding, which is about the effectivity
of producing rain falsely from aeroplanes and the implications of that. I remember
doing a ten-minute presentation on that and I was hopeless.
I'm not saying that I didn't learn anything from it, I'm just not sure how much I learned
from it. I learned a lot more about public speaking from the TEFL course [Teaching
English as a Foreign Language] I did later. There was just too little public-speaking
during the degree. That kind of skill requires much deeper preparation than a few
hours of seminar time on a modular course. It's not enough time. If they'd multiplied
it by ten it might have been enough.
There was one guy who was a nice guy but his physical aspect and his way of
speaking were often the subject of mirth. People were already prepared to laugh at
him before he started his seminar and he knew it. He'd get to do this thing and
people would laugh at him or snigger. Whereas the self-confident people had won
over the audience before they'd started. So I felt it reinforced previous ways of being
rather than helped people to develop.
I thought self-assessment was a load of rubbish. Again that's because I was a bad
student and I wasn't interested in it. If it had been something I was genuinely
interested in, I would have thought self-assessment and group crits would be great,
entertaining at least. Again it's my fault for ‘playing the system’. I think a lot of
people in England go to university in order to leave home, and they don't generally
choose the course that they are that interested in. I think self-assessment is perhaps
only valid if you're really interested in the course that you're doing, and I'm not sure
what percentage of people are, but that's another subject.
I remember there was a ‘get-into-pairs’ routine in the lectures, which I personally
didn't approve of and I still don't. It's used in language teaching and a lot of students
claim that they just learn each other's mistakes. The lecturers lectured to a group of
perhaps 60 people and they would put forward an idea and say, ‘Get into pairs or
groups of three and discuss it, you've got five minutes.’ Again, it's the same problem.
If you're very interested in the subject and your partner is, and your partner's on the
same level as you, things get discussed; but if you were like me then things didn't get
discussed and five minutes were wasted in the lecture-hall. I thought it was great in
theory. In language teaching, you might have your ideal group of 15 adult highly-
motivated students, all at exactly the same level, whereas in reality in the classroom
that very rarely occurs. And I think perhaps in the Geography department they had
these ideals – sixty people all with the same interests, the same level of learning, the
same brain – but it was a utopian ideal. I don't know how many people learned
anything from that kind of activity.
I remember the small-group seminars, which I didn't contribute very much to. There's
another problem – the personality thing. When you're eighteen, if you're shy and
nervous and you try to say something it's a great wrench. Even if you know what
you're talking about it can come out wrong. The people who performed successfully
in seminars were the people who had self-confidence, which was often to do with
their personality rather than to do with what we were supposed to be learning.
We went to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. It's a place where
people tried to set up a small community which was independent of the ‘normal
world’. They'd generate their own electricity and grow their own food. It was quite an
interesting positive experience although I remember very few details. I remember
that they mentioned that a lot of people had left the place and gone back to ‘normal’
life because they couldn't stand it any more. I don't know how independent the place
really was, but I got the impression that the thing wasn't applicable – the world
couldn't be a collection of independent, decentralised communities, whereas the
course was trying to tell us it could be. Or that was the impression I got. But
perhaps the course wasn't trying to indoctrinate us at all. Perhaps I was wrong.
Man, Environment, Attitudes was a triple module, and it took up a big chunk of the third
year – about 40 per cent. The first part of the course was very interesting and I think
it's had a good long-term effect on my way of thinking. I think the whole thing was very
well done. In a certain sense it was indoctrination, but I'm sure they felt that it had to
be that way and that was probably quite good, although I had my reservations.
The Man, Environment, Attitudes course made you aware that man was basically
ruining the environment. This was 13 or 14 years ago, before it became widespread
knowledge. Obviously it had been known for many years but this course tried to go
into the reasons why and I think in a certain sense they were quite right. My
memories of the course are fairly vague now, which is why I would have liked to have
read more about it before this interview, but I felt the course was quite indoctrinate.
Basically the doctrine of the course was that economic growth and capitalism was –
and is – the principal cause of the long-term deterioration of the environment and that
is the number one world problem above all others. I believed this to be true. But
there was a whole load of stuff behind it, in that course, which I didn't like. I felt the
course was a bit moralist.
I got the impression that you got bad marks if you didn't write what they wanted you
to write in essays. If you toed the line and quoted the references that were supposed
to be quoted, then you'd get a good mark without any real reasoning. They talked
about ‘hidden agendas’ on the course but they quite clearly had their own agenda.
But they were doing a good job in making people aware, and I think it has definitely
had an effect on the way I've thought in later years.
I didn't have lots to do with the people in Geography, either with the rest of the
students or with the teachers. I vaguely remember the teachers. I remember their
names – David Pepper and Alan Jenkins and Martin Haigh and so on – but, quite
frankly, I didn't get on with the Geography staff very well. A lot of the teaching was
geared at convincing us that the centralised economy was a bad thing and that a
decentralised economy would be a good thing, and, going back to this moralist thing
again, I got the impression that there was a ‘squeaky cleanness’ about them. They
were quite utopian. I got the impression that it became a professional dogma, and
yet in their personal lives, the nepotism was there – ‘jobs for the boys’ (or for the
girls) – and they themselves couldn't escape from the corruption inherent in the
‘Capitalist system’. I just got that impression. Perhaps that was very naive of me to
have even been shocked by that, but I resented it. I spent many years being
extremely cynical about these kind of people.
Having said that, I don't think I've got any right to criticise because I wasn't a model
student. Mine wasn't the case of a dedicated student frustrated by the teaching
methods because they didn't allow me to learn. No, my gripes were purely personal.
I'm just criticising because I didn't like one of the lecturer's ‘jolly hockey-sticks’
approach to the thing, which was a very personal thing which got up my back. And I
didn't like another lecturer's cynical approach to a lot of things. And a lot of us didn't
like other lecturers' boring approaches to the whole thing. The problem was right
from the start – I went into the course because I didn't have anything else to do. I
can't criticise the teaching methods justly.
The only thing I did resent was the hypocrisy – the moralising and then the nepotism.
That might have been the source of my backlash. I know two of us had that
backlash, and perhaps three or four others did. But then again, this kind of thing is
always open to criticism and we're only human. It's very difficult to practice as you
preach, and it's very easy to criticise and find fault, and, if you lead a lifestyle where
you're not trying to push a moral point home, it's very easy to behave as you like and
no-one will criticise you. I don't feel I have any right to criticise at the end of the day.
When I graduated I spent nearly a year in Oxford doing temporary jobs and being on
the dole. I spent the summer selling ice-creams in the middle of town, and the winter
working as a waiter in a restaurant and delivering pizza and things like that. A guy
called Charlie ran an empire of ice-creams and restaurants and a lot of people from
Oxford Poly worked for him while they were on the dole.
I spent a good while on the dole. I was trying to save up to travel and got distracted
by other things. I did a small photography course in the Photographers Workshop in
Oxford and I got interested in photography. I felt that my degree wasn't much use at
the time, apart from the fact that I'd got one. I wasn't very well prepared for entering
the job world. I was just 21, and I felt unprepared. So I did an EFL teaching course
in Hastings – in International House. That was April or May, nearly a year after
graduating. My reason for doing that was to get a certain shyness out of my system.
It was a one-month course but it was quite intensive.
I spent that summer teaching in a language school in Bournemouth for three months.
Then I got a job in Spain as an English teacher. I went out to Galicia for nine months
and I didn't really enjoy the experience. At that time I started doing a lot of drawing.
A friend of my flat-mate came out to visit and he was a graphic designer, and he saw
my drawings and he thought it might be interesting if I tried to enter the field of
illustration. I'd never really thought about it seriously before. I came back to Oxford
with that in mind and lived in Plantation Road. I had a go at it, but by then I didn't
have any money and I was in debt and in order to do anything like this you needed to
build up a base, but I got a lot of work done and learned a lot and I had a small
exhibition in the Old Fire Station. I still felt that I was going nowhere, so I desperately
applied for a postgraduate conversion course in computing, which I did the following
year, my third year after graduation.
That was at Newcastle University. I did that course, and again it was a wasted year.
I didn't enjoy the course and I wasn't very good at it. I applied for a few jobs in the
north of England and didn't get any, so I was teaching again in Oxford the following
summer. It wasn't a completely wasted year because I learned what I didn't want.
I was quite seriously into painting at that stage, and I met somebody who suggested
that teaching in the afternoons in Spain would give me time to paint in the mornings,
so I lived for two years in Vitoria in the north of Spain and had a lot of exhibitions in
bars and cafes.
Then I came to Madrid in order to do a life-drawing course. That was about seven years
ago and I've been in Madrid ever since. Until last July I was earning my living principally
from teaching. But now I don't. I've managed to get out of it after all these years. EFL
has been something that I've used in order to finance my own personal interests,
although it is a terrible trap which most people don't get out of. I've been painting for all
these years. As you can see, there's a lot of stuff here, which I've just been showing to
people. I wandered around lost for many years, knowing what I wanted to do but never
really having the guts to face people or to go and see gallery owners.
About five years ago I reluctantly had an exhibition in a bar, thinking it would get
nowhere, and a gallery owner got in contact with us and put us in a group exhibition,
so I had a gallery exhibition that I wasn't expecting. I had thoughts about going back
to England and trying to get on a postgraduate painting course. I thought that you
could never get an exhibition unless you did that. I didn't know. But now I've had two
group exhibitions in this gallery and I'm just about to have my first individual
exhibition. But that doesn't pay the rent unless you're either established or well-
known. When I used to go and teach English at seven o'clock in the morning I used
to do sketches of people in the underground and I've been trying to transform them
into paintings for years.
At a dinner party about four years ago, someone who works in advertising suggested
that I put together a portfolio to do storyboards, and I've been gradually getting
myself into that. It took a year and a half of just practising. I used all my possible
free time to practise. Then I got my first work. Then sporadic work. Then a bit more
work. Then more sporadic work for about two years. Since February of this year I
have had a lot of work.
I hated English teaching right from the start but I just felt that it was the only way I
could make my living, so I just carried on. You have to battle quite hard, and you
need luck as well. I would say that about 60 per cent of the EFL teachers in Spain –
probably every country – are frustrated writers or musicians or artists. I think I've
Now I'm earning my living from something I enjoy and something I'm quite good at.
I'm happy with that now from a personal point of view. That's partly through my own
determination but also through plain old good luck, blind faith and basically hating
teaching enough to spend all my spare time doing this obsessively. In the long run
I'd quite like to earn a living from painting, but that's another stage.
It's not without its little bits of luck. If I hadn't begrudgingly exhibited in that bar five
years ago, which I nearly didn't, that gallery-owner wouldn't have called up and I
wouldn't have had this exhibition and I wouldn't have got to know Mr Such-and-Such
who wouldn't have given me the contact into that and this and that. If I hadn't been at
that dinner party and that person hadn't told me that there was a shortage of good
storyboard illustrators in Madrid then I would probably still be teaching, frustratingly
painting here and still wondering. Or I might have given up and gone back and done
a PGCE like a lot of EFL teachers who've been here for six or seven years.
I think in a sense you've been unlucky to have chosen me as one of the eighteen.
Perhaps everyone says the same because it's such a small sample. I've only kept in
contact with two people who did Geography. One friend of mine is a computer
programmer, which I think a lot of people went into because they felt it was an option
for making money. Despite everything the course tried to teach us, I fear that making
money appears to be the be-all and end-all of everything. Without money you can't
One friend spent a few years trying to find his life and then got into computing. Both
of them have travelled quite a lot and done various things. They got the impression
that their Geography degree was very little use to them. I felt that when I'd finished
my degree there were very few options open to me.
When we get together we exaggerate how useless the course was, and laugh about it.
I've always thought, ‘How fucking useless it was,’ but since Andy called, I've got my act
together and tried to think, ‘Let's not be so negative, it has had a positive influence.’
But we do laugh about it all. We kind of jokingly rebelled against it ... but not really.
After doing that course we would be eating a big juicy steak in a restaurant and
laughing at the course, knowing that what we were doing was morally wrong, but still
doing it. We were backlashing against being politically correct long before it became
fashionable to be politically correct in England. I haven't lived in England for years
but apparently there has been a laddish backlash against being politically correct.
For two years after the course we had a laddish backlash against the course. We
knew that was wrong, we knew these people were seriously trying to do us some
good, but we were laddishly rebelling against it. But really, if I look back 13 years
later, it did have an influence.
What Use is a Degree?
Despite my reservations, the course definitely did have a positive effect and I
wouldn't want the positive aspects to be tucked into a corner. If I hadn't gone on that
course I would have embraced the western Capitalist culture much more blindly than
I do now. I come from a conservative family – I think most people in England are
fairly ignorant of politics – and I think the course did a good job of making people
aware. That has perhaps that has more weight on my present life than I would think.
I could quite easily say, ‘I learned nothing about public speaking, I learned nothing
from self-assessment, I learned a bit of nothing on the Geography course, I felt it was
moralist and slightly corrupt, and I'm not working in an oil company earning x
thousand a year with a family and wife and kids and driving a Volvo, so in those
terms my degree course 'failed' me.’ But in personal terms, no, I'm quite happy.
Something leads you into something else. I don't know what would have happened
to me if I hadn't done that degree. It's impossible to know.
I get the impression that those people who did get ‘good jobs’ ten years ago – well-
paid jobs in large companies – are fairly dissatisfied with their lifestyles now and they
would like to change or they'd like to go into teaching or they'd like a job which
satisfies them more. But they can't because of the money-incentive. I get the
impression that once you have a lifestyle where you've got lots of money it's very
difficult to get out of it. You're never going to make that change.
I was ignorant before the course, and I learned such a lot from it even though I didn't
take full advantage. It makes me a little bit more aware of my place in the world than
I might have had if I hadn't done the course. A lot of it has stuck there. The problem
is that things stick in your subconscious and you can't really remember them. Was it
something to do with the course, or was it not to do with the course?
I don't think I was typical of the Geography students, although I might be wrong. I got
the impression that a lot of the Geography students were pretty earnest and took it
on board a lot more seriously than I did at the time. It would be interesting to know
what they're doing now. And perhaps in the end, it perhaps hasn't had as much
influence on them as it might have had on me. I like some of the things that I've
taken on board, particularly from the first half of Man, Environment, Attitudes module,
but only from a personal point of view, not from a career point of view.
I'm happy now with the whole thing, but if I had really chosen, right from the start, I
would probably have done A level Art in a school which had a decent Art department.
If I'd read more when I was a kid, I would have done Art A level with a couple of Arts
subjects and I probably would have gone to Art School, and I would probably be
doing something completely different to what I'm doing now! Weird, isn't it? But I'm
glad that I'm an artist now, based on the life that I've had in my twenties, because
obviously you can't turn the clock back. I know people who went to Art School and
are now disillusioned by the art world whereas I'm still quite enthusiastic.
You read all this and you might think, ‘This guy has chosen to do this, this and this,’
but I haven't really chosen it. It's just happened. After leaving the course, I went to
quite a few interviews for jobs in cartography and I didn't get the jobs. From a
practical point of view I was pretty good at cartography, but perhaps they saw that I
wouldn't fit in. There again, if I had got a job in cartography, who's to say that now I
wouldn't be working in Reading with a house in Basingstoke, still doing cartography
and leading what they call ‘a conventional life’. If I had been given that job, my whole
life might have been different, or I might have come back to being an artist. Who
knows? It sounds a cliché to talk about ‘having a calling in life’.
I've kept in contact with a couple of people who did Visual Studies at the Poly, people
who went into art and photography, and I've got friends here who are artists or
musicians, and they've all battled for many years with very little money. They have
kept on with it and they've found that it's beginning to pay its dividends. Is it because
we're specially determined, or because we can't do anything else? If the John Lewis
Partnership had taken me on as a store manager I might have ended up doing that.
Who knows? It's a mystery to me. I just don't know.
Perhaps I always really wanted to be an artist and I was negative about the course
because I realised that in my heart of hearts I wasn't doing what I really wanted to do
and I was frustrated. As I said before, I did three Visual Studies modules and cynically
propped up my degree percentage. But I'm proof of the idea that you can do three
modules from somewhere else and open up a career. It would be interesting to see
how many other people did that. Or whether they've abolished that option. There, I'm
criticising the modular course but at the same time I'm accepting it and saying that it
was a good thing. You created your own course in the way that you create your own
life. It's so difficult to fit what I'm saying into what you're trying to do and what the other
people will say. You're going to get 18 completely different stories.
‘I hope you have some successful ones in your sample,’ says Claire Rayment on the
telephone. Ah, but it depends what you mean by successful. ‘Yes,’ she agrees. ‘I've
had a life full of rewards.’
To get to her farmhouse you need to drive slowly along narrow roads, checking her
excellent directions while hoping nobody comes from the other direction. Very few
people will find this part of North Wales, and those who do may debate whether to
return to their other world. The nearest town, Oswestry, is only a few miles away but
any sense of urbanity has completely evaporated.
Claire Rayment is the mother of two sons – one six years old, the other only six
weeks old – and yet she is able to fit in some time for an interview early in the
morning. She is 35 years old, and the subjects of her pass degree were
Environmental Biology and Geography.
Choosing the Course
I think it was because it was a modular degree. I don't think there were many
modular degrees at the time, and it meant that you could link two subjects. I liked the
idea of doing the Human Geography, and I could also do the Biology, the
conservation side in particular.
It was the done thing – when you'd done your 'A' levels, you must move on to
polytechnic or university. There was a bit of pressure from family – this is what you
do – but it was just the natural progression. My brother didn't bother. He dropped
out. My sister is a lot older than me. She did go to university and she is a doctor,
and her children have gone on to university.
I actually did my Geography 'A' level in the year between leaving school and going to
polytechnic. And I had to resit my Biology that year because I had had a personality
clash with my Biology teacher. She told me I would fail my Biology in the practical,
and if you fail the practical you fail the written, so I didn't bother with the written. It
turned out that I got an A in my practical and she had just misread my results
because I had done them back to front. It was just one of those things. She
shouldn't have even talked about it. But then I went on and did fine in the Biology
and I did the Geography as well. Geography wasn't done in Guernsey, where I went
to school, so I was at home [in Cambridgeshire] for my ‘year out’. It was the first time
I had lived at home for about eight years and I got to know my Mum. It was quite
good in that respect. Then I went back to Guernsey once I had done the exams and
worked over there again.
I can't remember which module it was, but I remember we used to hold courts. You
had to do your bit – judge or jury or putting your case – and they were very good fun.
I remember those because I used to get quite worried about doing them, especially if
I was the one doing the speaking bit. I wasn't very good at speaking at the time.
I remember that the seminars seemed to have a lot more student interaction,
compared with Environmental Biology, which was classically sitting writing notes. I
think there was a lot more handing out of notes at the end in Geography. They
wanted you to enjoy it and get into it and contribute and then you would get handouts
at the end.
The main thing I remember is that the whole structure of the Geography course was
getting you to think for yourself. I found the Environmental Biology, especially the
Biology, very hard to do, because that was much more about learning the theories
and writing it all out. You couldn't think for yourself, and if you did, if you questioned
the teachers, it wasn't very good. That was my experience. I actually felt quite
despondent with the Biology side because I wanted to come up with my own ideas,
which you had been encouraged to do with the Geography. The two subjects
clashed for me, because I really took off on the Geography side.
I can't remember a lot of the theories we did in Geography but I know they were all
about the human impact on the environment. I think this was why I ended up clashing
with the environmental biologists because in the Geography we were looking critically
at what man was doing whereas in the Biology we just learned the mechanics and the
theories, and we weren't questioning it or learning it to change anything. I also wish
the Biology had been a lot more about conservation rather than having to learn so
much about things like genetics. Then I would have been a lot happier.
Looking back at the Geography course, I really appreciated the student-centredness of
the whole thing. The two lecturers I really remember were Alan Jenkins and David
Pepper. They were just go-getters, enthusiastic lecturers, just a good laugh. My
memory of Alan Jenkins is that he was quite whacky and nutty and did rather odd
things, so he was just good fun to be around. I think they all were really. We went
down the pub and had a good drink with them as well as the serious side. I'd probably
remember others if their names were said but those two had the main impact.
Not everyone on the course responded to the interest in environmentalism. I was
quite rebellious before the course, so that was in my nature. I had always lived in the
countryside, and I suppose the countryside was my thing. I hadn't done an awful lot
of voluntary work or anything like that because I had lived out in the Channel Islands.
There wasn't much to be involved in over there.
I didn't actually finish my dissertation so I didn't get a honours degrees in the end. I
just had a rebellious streak in me. I just gave up really, especially with the Biology. I
did pretty well with all my Geography exams, but I suddenly developed this habit of
writing the bare minimum and walking out of Biology exams because I couldn't see
the point of it anymore. I got very despondent at the whole set-up. So when it came
to my dissertation I think I actually lost it, and I didn't carry on after that.
With the fields trips, there were funny instances which weren't really to do with
Geography. It was just really going out with Alan Jenkins. I remember we went to
Norwich and my vivid memories are of the brand new minibus that we went in. Alan
Jenkins drove into the multi-storey car-park and under the height-restriction sign and
then half the group got out and the van got wedged under the sign. It was a classic.
Just miles of traffic jams with this little bus wedged under the sign, and all the old
colonel types coming up to tell you how to do it. I think we wrecked the minibus.
Part of the roof got dented and we had to let down all the tyres.
I find it hard to remember the serious studying side because it never seemed serious.
It all seemed good fun really. What we did up in Glasgow was just fun. We did
serious studies, projects comparing Glasgow and Edinburgh, but we were fortunate
that when we went to Edinburgh it tied in with the Edinburgh Festival. That was
probably deliberate. It was the classic student thing – you just got drunk and had a
good time – but there was the serious side too.
We went to nuclear power stations. I think they thought we were a nice little tour
party. I don't think they realised we were there for such a critical view of it.
One of my main clashes with Biology was after a field trip to the Centre for
Alternative Technology. This was a turning point for me. We had to devise our own
experiment on something we'd seen and back it all up. I homed in on the gardener
who was studying stress in plants and the Biology department said it can't be proved
scientifically. I was stupid picking it really. I had it sent back to me telling me that I
had failed on it and that was it for me. I thought that as far as what the Centre for
Alternative Technology were doing at the time, there was plenty of evidence, visual
evidence, but I didn't know how to explain that. It was just the Biology department's
lack of appreciation of anything that didn't have a scientific fact. I think basically it
was me rebelling against having to prove it scientifically. I have that scientific basis
in me, I do operate like that, but it doesn't have to be the be-all and end-all.
I was very much into the gothic stuff that was going around. I don't think they have it
now – the Independent Chart, Bauhaus sort of stuff. I had my group of friends, but I
didn't really like the student life and I got to know quite a few local people. Once I got
to know locals, who were all the same age and struggling, I found the student life just
too privileged. It seemed like students could get a loan at the time from the bank, but if
you were on the dole you couldn't. I didn't find myself participating in the student life as
much as the years went by. I got a couple of pub jobs and I was working at the pubs in
between classes. I had very good local friends, whereas the other students didn't
really mix with the locals. They'd moved into a town, pretty well taken it over and then
didn't mix. So I reacted to that. I preferred being out there with people who were more
real to me. The students just seemed to be having a good time.
Good bands came to the poly and it was a very good social life. It was too good
really. I got quite involved in the drama side. In the first year I was with the main
poly drama group, and then a splinter group set up and did stuff at the Pegasus
Theatre. In theory we had to travel around and do the Edinburgh Festival and things,
but there were field trips at the time so I couldn't go with them.
I have friends in Greenpeace, which is where I really wanted to go, but then I met my
partner and things changed and my family life took over. I met him through his sister,
who was at Oxford Poly. She was only there for a year and then she dropped out.
He was actually at Birmingham. He finished the same year as me and then I carried
on for another year just to make up my modules.
I didn't do much travelling until I got into poly and met my partner. His sister had
lived on a kibbutz in Israel. Then she met someone who was actually living out there
so we went out to visit her and have a tramp around. I really enjoyed it, despite the
fact that at the time there was talk about blowing up English tourists. It was very
good because we were living the Israeli family life rather than being tourists. We saw
a lot of the human side. When we finished we went off travelling for a bit. Morocco
and places. Then we ended up moving to Shrewsbury because his Mum's house
was empty. We were supposed to go off travelling again but we got a bit stuck there.
We stayed in Shrewsbury for a couple of years and then ended up in Wales. When
we were living in Shrewsbury we thought maybe we would go and live in Sheffield. I
can't remember why. I think maybe it was because we could get on further courses.
Somehow we ended up staying with friends in Wales and then didn't leave because
they went away and we rented their house.
We did our hermit bit for a few years with vegetables and all that. I was quite happy
living in the middle of nowhere doing my own thing. I thought it was a learning
experience. It was quite hard work getting all your wood in and that type of thing.
Then we sort of came out. My partner is now self-employed as a carpenter/joiner.
When we were in Shrewsbury I did follow the environmental stuff for a bit, on a
voluntary level. Then since being out here I worked for the RSPB [Royal Society for
the Protection of Birds]. The actual jobs tended to link up more with the
Environmental Biology or the conservation side than the Geography. We learned
how to do management plans and things in the Biology but it was in the Geography
that I came across things like the wilderness movement, people setting up in the
wilderness, and learned more of the political side and the bigger picture.
When I went to the RSPB, trying to get work experience, I realised that I couldn't
actually do it because even at that level you couldn't question or come out with your
own theories, which I had been doing in the Geography. I just suddenly realised that
the questioning doesn't happen until you are high up, by which time your great ideas
have gone. At the time it seemed rather hard to work in those organisations if you had
ideas of your own. You just had to follow the set pattern until you were recognised and
I was too rebellious for that, so I packed it in. I would have been more suited to
Greenpeace because of the training and background I had had. I just chose the wrong
bodies, the established ones, and they didn't really want the boat rocked.
A group of us bummed around and didn't get anywhere for quite a few years, getting
our act together. I think a lot of them, especially the ones who did Environmental
Biology, struggled on, trying to get their work experience. Getting into conservation
meant having to travel around the country and work for nothing. I had just met my
partner so I didn't want to go where everybody else was going. I didn't want to be
away from him doing the work experience, so I tried to find it another way, but by the
time I got round to it I was trapped. You couldn't get a job unless you had work
experience and you couldn't get work experience because they had got rid of the
Community Programme, which is the way a lot of people at the time were getting
work experience. That was a very good scheme and ET [Employment Training]
didn't quite offer the same. If I'd got into it straightaway, I would have probably
carried on, but I took some time out. If I'd really gone for it, I would have been doing
the Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace type of thing, which meant moving away to
London and working in an office. But that didn't go with my life at the time.
My friend Helen did Cartography and Geography, and she is a successful person.
She worked for Friends of the Earth and then worked for the Labour Party, and
gradually worked her way up on the fund-raising side and she is now incredibly
successful. She married a man who is incredibly successful with his own business.
But it's hard work. They have both really earned what they've got. We always used
to laugh, because we followed completely opposite paths, but there was no bad
feeling about it. I don't think her work is directly linked with the Geography and
Cartography. It was what the course brought out in us rather than just the actual
I have run various catering businesses. It has all been quite diverse really. A couple
of years ago we opened a health food shop. I first became vegetarian when I was at
poly and it was very much the rebellious thing to do. It's not so much the animal
issue now, it's the actual health side of the food and the chemicals they put into it. If
the meat was healthy and safe and happy and wild, even the slaughtering side isn't
as important anymore. The emphasis of vegetarianism has changed. Since our first
son [aged six] came along we've had less classic farm food here, but we are pretty
healthy eaters. I'm not sure about this one [her six-week-old son]. Now we do eat a
bit of meat maybe he will want to. Because I chose not to have the vaccinations the
emphasis has to be on making sure we eat as healthily as possible, especially in the
I did have another little boy in between these two. He was Down's Syndrome and
had a very bad heart problem. He lived for a year and died three years ago now.
That has been a major influence on our lives. In a very positive way. It's not been a
bad experience. And again I think the way we dealt with that was very much
following the trail and not just taking what people said. I think that was why we found
it a lot easier in the end. I suppose we questioned the doctors and didn't just accept
everything they gave us. We rebelled about it and as a result I think he came on
quite well for a while. I don't think we were going to let him be the classic Down's
Syndrome baby, which he would have been if we'd done everything they wanted.
We fed him and stimulated him in our own way, and that again was the questioning.
Not taking the gospel of it.
Dave Pepper was my personal tutor at Oxford Poly. I remember a seminar in the last
year and he was going round us all, asking us what we thought we would do and
then he told us what he could see us doing. I didn't know what I was going to do and
he turned to me and said, ‘I can see you in a commune growing vegetables.’ When I
was working in Shrewsbury I had a job in a health food shop there and Dave Pepper
was actually staying at the commune for a night because he was doing a study on
communes. When he walked in the shop I went and hid because I wasn't going to
give him the satisfaction of seeing me doing what he said I'd be doing. I thought,
‘He's going to see me in that shop and think, “Yes, she's there in the commune just
like I thought she would be.”‘ So I hid in the toilet until he'd gone.
I suppose that was fair what he said about me, bearing in mind my life is very much
like that. It's not a commune, but it's that sort thing, dealing with the earth and the
country. I shied away from big jobs in the city and I've not got involved in politics and
things. Since having kids my whole perspective has changed. I don't really want to
rock the boat too much and draw attention to myself because now it can affect others.
Now I am at home I want to learn computing and do various courses while I can. I
started on a counselling course and I'm thinking about maybe getting into
counselling. I would like to do some sort of natural therapy. It's what I have always
wanted to do. But actually getting the money together to do it ...
I think I've got to the age that it's time to get a bit sorted out. Once this one’s a bit
older I do want to get a career together. I don't want to work in a health food shop for
the rest of my life. It's served its purpose in getting me out of motherhood and
meeting people. Sometimes I have thought about getting into teaching, because it is
potentially a job with reasonable money but it seems so stressful and I'm not very
happy with what is happening within schools at the moment – so much emphasis on
science at the expense of creativity and sports. If teaching had been a better
profession I think I would have probably used my degree and gone into it, because it
is a very good degree for teaching.
I would probably suffer because I would want to be doing my best. So many
teachers are off with stress. In our local school two out of three were off for most of
last year. They are the conscientious teachers who are actually buckling under the
weight of it.
What Use is a Degree?
As far as the Biology and Geography go now, as actual subjects, they are in the past
for me, but the experience is still there, especially from the Geography. The overall
impact of the Geography has been more in the way my life has gone – the way I think
and the way I have got on with my life. I was thinking about this last week, how it
links up with the counselling I do. The type of counselling I like is more person-
centred, encouraging the person to get themselves motivated rather than having
someone telling you what to do. So perhaps that is where it came from.
I think it is the sort of degree I would like for my children, because it would teach
them how to question, challenge and think for themselves. It did that for me and that
is what I would try and pass on, although sometimes it can backfire because it
pressures us too much.
I wouldn't remember an awful lot about what we learnt. I think I did earlier on. If I got
the books out, it would only be a matter of quickly reading through them, but there was
one bit which I couldn't really explain to you now – we did phenomenology in
Geography and I really got into it. I couldn't name all the theories now, but I know a
few of the theories we did in Geography do relate to what I've done since. Just talking
about things in general. Doing the counselling course, a few terms came up and
suddenly I thought, ‘Oh yes, I've done this somewhere before’ and I realised it was the
Geography. You can explain it more through the Geography than the Biology. I am
very negative about the Biology. It probably wasn't as bad as I feel it was.
I am very environmentally minded. I'm into recycling and not using disposable
nappies and all that. It's going to be very interesting now. Having had the rebellion
side and also having learnt to question things, we are bringing our eldest up that way
without thinking how it's really happening, so it will be ‘Oh God, what've we done?’
With my parents, in the old days, children were to be seen and not heard, and you
were left to sort your head out when you left home. Hopefully, our son will leave
home knowing how to sort his head out and it will be less of an ordeal. He will have
the questioning mind.
The Class of 1985
Ten years later, some graduates are hard to find. Their parents may have moved
and they themselves may have relocated several times. Most alumni studies rely
heavily on parental addresses, and that may lead to response bias, so we were
particularly interested in the harder-to-trace graduates – like Michael Liley.
Early in the project we found an address in Dorset for the correct Michael Liley but we
had missed him by a few weeks. After that we spoke with two more Michael Lileys in
the West Country. They both would have made fine interviewees but they were the
wrong ones for this project. Finally, the correct Michael Liley was traced through a
relative, and the trip to see him was every bit as pleasant as the vision of Dorset.
‘Before I came here,’ says Michael Liley, ‘I hadn't realised how flat this part of
Worcestershire is.’ He talks about the landscape and the origins of unusual place
names – Broughton Hackett, Flyford Grafton, Upton Snodsbury, Flyford Flavell and
North Piddle. He has been here for only six months but he knows the land intimately.
Born in 1952, he grew up in Farnborough, Hampshire. He was 33 years old when he
started his degree in Environmental Biology and Geography (upper second) and is
now forty-six. He is the oldest graduate in our sample and the only one to start a
degree in his thirties. His degree subjects are the same as those studied by Claire
Rayment three years earlier but any similarity of experience stops there.
We meet in a village pub in mid-November, two days before a meteor shower. He
has brought along his undergraduate dissertation. It is a very impressive piece of
work – over 80 pages of text, plus diagrams with overlays, photographs and
statistical tables. It won the 1988 David Irvine Prize, awarded by the Geography
department for the best dissertation.
Choosing the Course
Before I went to Oxford Poly, I was working at the Ministry of Defence, auditing
accounts for the army, and my job was what I considered dead-end. I'd always
wanted to get into nature conservation because I'd always been interested in nature
– things that crawled, plants, countryside, wildlife and animals. So there was a
specific aim for doing this course. I wanted to get into a job in nature conservation
and I had my eyes on the Nature Conservancy Council.
I was already in a government department, and if I'd had my way I'd have transferred
straight across. But it was impossible to transfer to another department in a clerical
capacity. I tried it several times. The point came where I had a change in personal
circumstances, and I thought, ‘Right, if it's impossible to get into nature conservation
just by transferring departments, you need to go back and get the qualifications.’
Which is what I did. I went back to school.
I did Biology A level evening-class – I took it once and then took it again to get a
higher grade – and I took Maths O level. That would have been between 1982 and
1985. I was aiming at an Environmental Science degree. I wasn't aiming at
Geography. I selected a Modular Course so that everything didn't depend on that
I thought, ‘What am I going to put with Environmental Biology so I can do this career
in nature conservation and be an ecologist or environmentalist or whatever?’ And
the one A level I'd got from school was Geography, so I put down Geography. It was
almost plucked out of the air.
The only other thing I had real skills in was music. I'd done music training and had
gone to King Alfred's Teaching Training College, intending to teach. And I was
involved in musical activities while I was working at the Ministry of Defence – I was
singing in a professional choir.
Unlike the majority of students, I had a specific aim in mind when I set out to do the
degree. I got the impression that the majority of school-leavers were there just to get
a degree and then think ‘What do I do next?’
There was one strange thing. When I was working at the Ministry of Defence, in
Winchester, I happened to work with somebody who had been on the Geography
course at Oxford Poly. I don't think he had any bearing on the fact that I chose
Oxford Poly, and I didn't get a sense of the course from him, but he just happened to
know people like Alan Jenkins and Derek Elsom.
I adopted a strategy during the course. I put a lot of energy into the coursework so that
when it actually came to the exam I wouldn't have to work that hard to get the extra to
pull through. That strategy paid off in the end and I came out with an upper second.
There were pluses and minuses to the Geography course. I dare not be too
derogatory about the Geography department because I got the departmental prize for
my dissertation and many things about Geography were quite positive, but one of my
fellow mature students actually left the Geography department early in the degree
course in sheer disgust. She was a biologist and a very good chemist and was also
very good at languages. She was very academic, very studious, and like me she had
worked for several years. But she was appalled because she felt that her dignity and
maturity was under assault in Geography because you were put in this group
situation with other students and treated rather like performing animals by the staff.
You almost felt you were under psychological analysis. And you felt belittled
because there was a sort of talk-down-to feeling that came from the staff talking to
these 18-year-olds. It wasn't a very comfortable feeling. You don't expect to be
comfortable on a degree course but there comes a threshold, doesn't there?
When my friend realised that she was being treated as a sort of guinea-pig she felt
that enough was enough. I think she was affected by one of the early field trips to
Wales, where they make you do all sorts of party-time activities – acting and role-
playing, pretending to be this and pretending to be that. She found it too
experimental and too much of an insult to one's maturity and intelligence. We also
seemed to spend a lot of the early part of the course answering the question ‘What is
Geography?’ and not getting anywhere. And that put a few people off as well. I can
well understand why she left. If I'd been good at chemistry and biochemistry and all
the other subjects needed in pure Environmental Biology I would have gone the
same way and binned the Geography. But I didn't have her talents. She changed
course, came out with a first and ended up with a PhD.
I'm throwing out a negative there. On the positive side, the group work and having to
talk to people in groups and give presentations and use an overhead have all helped
with some of the jobs I've been employed on. You could say they have directly helped.
There was some peculiar thing about the Geography department staff that teaching
had to be all-singing and all-dancing, and unless you were really getting the students
doing group work and assessing each other, you weren't running a course properly. I
think the Environmental Science course would probably collapse if it was run on
those principles because it is so factual and scientific. On the Environmental Science
side, you just got straight lectures or fieldwork or laboratory work, and the lecturers
treated you on equal terms, particularly if you were a mature student. You felt much
happier with that situation. You weren't uneasy and under stress all the time. But
then it could be argued that there are some advantages of being under stress and
being in a position of assessing somebody else and doing group work because those
are the sort of interpersonal skills that are actually used in a job situation. I'm putting
over two sides of the coin and I'm not being very clear as to what my conclusion is.
I got the impression that some of the 18-year-olds lapped it up and thought it was
great fun. So I don't know what you do about mature students, whether you run your
course to have a cell that caters for mature-student entry and separates them from
the rest of the students. I should think that's rather unlikely, since they are a minority
of the intake anyway. Working in groups with 18-year-olds, I found there was a
certain tension between myself and them. That was probably my own fault. They
probably thought I was square or something.
In some ways I blended in with the 18-year-olds and the staff treated me the same as
them. I didn't look particularly old at the time – probably not now! – so they treated
me as they did the others. I suppose that's what I found a bit difficult. I didn't like the
idea that I was being treated as some sort of sixth-former when I had 15 years of
experience of life at that stage.
The course content was probably quite reasonable. Because I felt more of an affinity
with the Physical Geography side, I found Peter Keene and Derek Elsom and people
like that much easier to get on with than the staff on the Human Geography side.
David Pepper was a bit unfathomable at times but I'm sure that underneath he had a
heart of gold. He was friends with Tam Dalyell and people like that. I remember
Heather Jones. She was good. Her role was course administrator ... and keeping
the staff in order as well as the students.
A lot of the staff were liberal with a left-wing bias and I felt they were pushing too
hard. There were quite a lot of younger students who were involved in activities like
the Officers Training Corps and there were some outspoken students on the course.
We did a War and Peace module and there was lots of debate. It was just post-
Falklands so there was a lot of focus on how Britain should continue to assert itself
on the international scene. It got quite a lot of interesting argument going. There
were some students with almost militaristic views and there were other students who
would counterbalance that.
I don't want to give the impression that I'm particularly screwed up about the
Geography side. I realise that it's a radical form of learning and teaching which has
its own particular relevance, not only to employers and the working environment but
also to life and interpersonal things. But I just found it hard when I was trying to
concentrate on learning my science and prepare for a job in nature conservation. It
was an interference, a fuzziness which I didn't want. I wanted to get on with the
Biology and the Environmental Science, or even the Physical Geography. It was just
Of course there was a big environmentalism thing – Jonathan Porritt was in the news
at that time – and that was good. It gave you a background to the political side. You
look at Swampy in the trees nowadays and the motorway protests with slightly
different eyes than you would have done if you had not been on the course. For
example, Twyford Down, which I had some personal involvement in. I suppose the
course gave you a feeling for the power of peaceful protest and how it is sometimes
valuable in actually stopping things, such as the government's road programme.
Also, when I was in Beaminster in Dorset [in the mid-nineties] I helped form a group
which campaigned for local road-traffic calming. I did all the posters and
photographs and provided road-traffic statistics. David Pepper's module focused on
things like that. What was it called? Was it Man and the Environment? I can't
remember the title – I didn't get a very high mark on that module!
We visited Machynlleth and all these places. Incidentally, we visited Machynlleth on
the Biology side as well, but to do moth-trapping and survey work, not to look at how
the Machynlleth community functioned. In the late eighties conservationists were up-
and-coming. We were just beginning to turn the world on its head and say ‘What are
we doing, where are we going?’ And the course was coming around to that too.
Maybe there should have been trips abroad. There weren't. I didn't enjoy the
Geography trip to Machynlleth but I did enjoy the Biology one. The Geography one
had a construction task that was a teamwork exercise. It smacked of the British
Trust for Conservation Volunteers, who go out at weekends and build footpaths and
bridges. I've done work with them in the past. I suppose all the work analysing the
community was interesting but I didn't enjoy the way it was put over and all the self-
assessment business. I found that challenging at the time. I suppose someone will
read this and say, ‘Yeah, well, it's supposed to be challenging.’
I enjoyed the Physical Geography modules – Coastal Geomorphology and Weather
and Climate – but that's because of where I was aiming. Then we had a module
which was a forerunner to the dissertation project. I can't remember the title of the
module but the focus was on getting students to do their projects in groups. I was
allowed to do mine independently, which I thought was interesting. I pushed for it
and they said, ‘Alright, if you want to do it on your own then do that,’ so I can't say
there wasn't a degree of freedom built into the course. I did a survey of hedgerow
loss in Sussex and that was a forerunner to my dissertation.
The title of my dissertation was quite a mouthful [An Evaluation of the Environmental
Impact of Recent Losses of Semi-natural Habitat in West Hertfordshire]. It should
just say ‘Hedges’ really. It was a case study of eight farms. I tried to find out how
recent hedgerow removal and/or deterioration had affected bird populations. I was
looking at wintering birds. So it was a very specific thing, looking at how birds use
hedgerows and how hedgerow depletion and damage affected the birds. In an
arable field they cut hedges square and cut them right down.
The dissertation also went into the farmer attitude side and I went back to earlier
studies. I went to all sorts of people. I was doing some volunteer work during
vacations with the British Trust for Ornithology at the time and I got information on
the common bird census in Hertfordshire from their agricultural birds unit. I put a lot
of energy into it and Martin Haigh was a great help. The diagrams show the degree
of hedge loss on each farm over a period of time. Some of it was inconclusive
because of sample size, but there were some significant conclusions showing the
effect on some bird species, e.g. thrushes. It won the David Irvine Dissertation
Prize, which was given on the Geography side. I don't think it was quite so highly
rated on the Environmental Science side. Most of my course notes are up in the attic
but this dissertation is still quoted somewhere on my CV.
Me and the student crowd at the polytechnic were very dysfunctional. I felt that if I
was going to do what I'd set out to do then I had to keep my head down. I'm the sort
of person who, study-wise, is very prone to distractions, whereas some people,
especially the 18-year-olds, seemed to have an endless capacity to be out till two
o'clock in the morning and survive taking a modular exam the next day. That's an
extreme example, but they seemed to be very resilient. I stayed in private
accommodation outside Oxford, where there were maturer people. I went to the odd
bop and generally got in with a crowd.
I didn't really enjoy it. The only person I've kept up with from those days is the one I
told you about earlier. We correspond at Christmas. She did a PhD on black grouse
in Northumbria and ended up living that way. She got married and had kids.
And I did meet two people again later when I was at English Nature. When I was at
college they were postgraduate demonstrators in Environmental Biology. One
became a moth expert for English Nature and the other one was a woodland
ecologist for English Nature, and I think they got married. They would suddenly turn
up at the same meetings as me.
Immediately post-degree I spent a summer doing voluntary work with the Wildlife
Trust. I then did an Employment Training Scheme with the Wildlife Trust in Essex.
While I was there I went to a college of agriculture to do a sandwich course in
biological survey – Amenity Horticulture (Part 2), an old City & Guilds qualification
which is now the National Examinations Board Certificate.
Then I got a job with a consultancy in East Anglia working on river corridors. Lots of
us, ex-degree students, were walking kilometres and kilometres of river corridor and
doing botanical and bird census surveys. I had some contract breaks and spells of
unemployment, eking out a living with temporary jobs, and then I went back to the
same consultancy for another one and half years and worked on the Essex coast.
Then I got a job in Scotland with the Nature Conservancy Council, doing a vegetation
survey of the entire island of Arran. They have a big field-study centre there,
Lochranza, and I tried to get a job there as a teacher just after the Arran contract had
finished. I didn't get the job. Lochranza is a big training centre. It's a set-up possibly
similar to the Physical Geography side of the Oxford Polytechnic Geography
department but has a field and practical bias because the island is so important for its
geology and everything else. You still see the Lochranza adverts in the New Scientist.
I went from the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland to the RSPB [Royal Society
for the Protection of Birds] in the south of England for a short-fuse research contract on
birds of set-aside farmland. Then I went to Wales to work with what was then ADAS
[Agricultural Development Advisory Service] but has now become a hived-off
consultancy that does other work as well as statutory government work. I was working
partly for the Welsh Office agriculture department on their Environmentally Sensitive
Area side. They used me as a so-called ecology consultant for nearly two years.
In 1994, I moved to Dorset for personal reasons, but my new job was in Hampshire,
65 miles away. It was back to my old stamping-ground because Winchester was
where I was before I set out in 1985 to go off on a tangent. I was in Hampshire for
nearly four years, with English Nature, working on designation of Special Sites of
Scientific Interest [SSSI] on two Hampshire rivers – the Test and the Itchen. It was
potentially a highly politically sensitive notification because we were dealing with
about 400 landowners – big City banks, judges, international corporations, Lord
Romsey – and they owned the fishing. There were two of us running that – myself
and the project leader (who was younger than me) – and it involved the top layer of
English Nature from directors downwards, representatives of fishing interests in
Hampshire and the Environment Agency.
English Nature tried to accommodate the fishery interests as much as possible,
allowing them to carry on their traditional chalk-stream management activities while
at the same time making sure that the SSSI clauses didn't allow too many
management activities that would actually damage the nature conservation interest
on the rivers. Many of the fishing concerns were beginning to be run on commercial
lines and some were ‘double-banking’ the rivers, i.e. fishing from both banks. Chalk-
stream rivers have very soft banks that are botanically important. The danger was
that the banks might be mechanically hardened or raised so that you ended up with a
river that looked a canal.
When you notify the sites you allow time for them to consider the proposals and
represent or object to English Nature's Council, but because we tried to
accommodate some of the chalk-stream management practices and satisfy some of
the owners' concerns, we had less than 15 objections from approximately 400
landowners, so that was quite a reasonable outcome. And then I was involved with
case work and site management after the SSSI had been notified.
I'm back with the Wildlife Trust again now. I came up here to Worcestershire to do a
survey of the county's 85 wetlands. I've just completed the survey and I'm writing the
report now. It's another short-fuse contract so I don't know what's happening after
the end of January.
What Use is a Degree?
My aim has been to get a permanent conservation officer post, but even now I'm not
there. I don't really know in my own mind whether I do want to be permanently behind a
desk, doing a lot of casework and going to public inquiries and dealing with corporate
plans and that sort of work. It's increasingly corporate and executive rather than
scientific. There's a lot of desk-driving rather than actually getting out there and dealing
with site protection and the nitty-gritty. I suppose I like survey to an extent. I like report-
writing. I like that sort of thing. But you can't make a permanent job out of it.
So a degree hasn't in the end got me the job I wanted. Employers are not after
degrees. In nature conservation they are after ‘track record’ and so much of the work
is contract work, so I haven't got a permanent post yet and it's been ten years.
What I'm saying is that the degree is a good foundation, but employers are more
interested in experience and track record and membership of professional bodies
and ability to administrate and organise, which generally comes with the job. I do go
back to some of the communication and interpersonal skills which the Geography
department were trying to drum into us. I don't think the Geography degree helped
directly with ‘knowing your plant species’ which is what the survey in Arran was all
about, but I suppose there is the analysis and report-writing aspect, which has had
some bearing on every survey or project that you do.
Life has been much more transient after my degree. There's a lack of stability and in
a way that's affected my personal life. I think all the uprooting has been disturbing.
I've got to the stage where I'd like to stop this moving around. I'd like to settle in
Worcestershire. Alan Jenkins was always talking about ‘a sense of place’.
I still don't know whether I'll stay in nature conservation. I'm feeling now that I'd like
to get back into music, which I was doing before my degree. If conservation doesn't
work out for me, I'll get some sort of job or even teach musical studies. Who knows?
I have to see how the whole thing works out. I'd love to stay working in this field but
it's very, very competitive and the staffs at these agencies are very small, very select
and elite, and it's difficult to get on.
Employers find me quite unusual because I made a conscious decision to chuck up
everything at considerable risk, go back to school as a mature student and get the
life which perhaps I'd wanted originally. I think employers are always interested in
that. It's not going to guarantee me a job, by no means, but my employers have
been interested in me as a person because I'd taken the trouble to do that. It
obviously shows a sense of commitment. Whether after ten years I've now changed
my mind is another matter.
I think a lot of the ‘maturer people’ at college had made a conscious decision to go in
a certain direction. It's common sense that you are going to be a lot more focused. I
had a definite goal. For the majority of students, though, if you say ‘What use is a
degree?’ well, it's the starting place for anything. What proportion of students
actually go into the discipline that they do the degree from?
I had problems identifying with those other students. That was because they didn't
really care as much about what they were studying. They didn't have the depth of
interest in, say, environmental issues. I'm making a blanket statement here but it
came over to me that they were there to have fun and get a degree and they didn't
really care what they were studying: ‘It's just another module and if I fail it I'll do
another one.’ They were drifting around the modular system, picking up courses and
dropping them. That's why I couldn't identify with them.
I think the staff need to think about trying to commit people more at that age. Get
people more interested and involved. Or is there a need to commit them? Are we
just talking about getting a degree for a degree's sake? I don't know. It depends
entirely on what specialism you are aiming at and how broad or narrow the
Emma Wilkins is 32 years old and married. She still lives in her home county, Kent,
and has a young family. Her degree was Geography and Sociology, and she worked
in the recruitment business after graduating.
Emma was contacted by letter in late-June, at the beginning of the study. (In all
except four of the 18 cases, the first contact was by telephone.) She replied promptly
by handwritten letter: ‘I am sorry but I won't be able to help you with your project. It
sounds interesting and I hope it will be successful. I've returned your outline.’
At that early stage in the project we toyed with the idea of replacing a non-
respondent with a ‘substitute’ interviewee chosen from the same sampling cell. We
rejected that idea when we got to know the interviewees as individuals who were all
on different journeys. We realised then that Emma Wilkins and the other non-
respondent (Neil Stephenson) were irreplaceable. There was nobody else like them.
We just wished we knew their stories.
A southern university in the middle of July. The usual students have departed and
the campus is now dominated by young foreign students, one of whom approaches
and asks, ‘One cigarette?’
The Geography Department offers more rewarding conversation. In his office,
Damian Shouler points out the detail in the long-distance view of London. Are all
Geography graduates natural tour guides?
We adjourn to a coffee lounge and it becomes clear that he is nervous about the
interview. Born and raised in Nottingham, he is now 32 years old and unmarried. It is
exactly ten years since he graduated with a degree in Cartography and Geography.
Choosing the Course
I think I originally wanted to do something in Design but I had a series of disasters on
my Design A level. Then I wanted to do Cartography with Geography, or Geography
with some element of Cartography in it. I applied to universities but my A levels
weren't A A A or whatever, so I couldn't get in. But Oxford Poly was a good place for
Cartography and they accepted me.
I think I've always been more of an artistic person than a person who writes things
down, so when I was at Oxford Poly I enjoyed the Cartography more than the
Geography. I think that made me want a career in Cartography. Cartography
seemed to be more vocational. The Geography part seemed to be more academic
and I found it more difficult to grasp all the concepts that they were putting forward.
The concepts seemed far-fetched at that time. At A level it was just teaching. Then
at Oxford Poly you had to go to seminars and you had to think more and put forward
your own views. You had to work in groups and arrive at a conclusion that you
presented to the whole class at the end. I found that quite difficult. It was very hard
the first year.
I found it hard having to do your own research and I found it difficult to speak in front
of a group. I think a lot of people found it hard. There was one presentation I
remember in Cartography. In the long holiday, August-time, we went on a work
placement for a few weeks and we had to come back, report on it, go through all that
we'd done, explain it all and then face lots of questions afterwards.
I found working in a group okay. Put forward your ten pence worth or whatever,
amalgamate it all together. If one person was better at speaking they would do the
speaking. If one person was better at doing some displays, or explaining the
displays, they would do that.
I've got a bad memory. I can't remember some courses rather than others. There
were some courses where we thought, ‘Why are we doing this?’ Like David Pepper's
course. He said, ‘If you think you can walk through a wall, you can actually walk
through it.’ There were other courses like that where you were wondering at the
time, ‘What's it all about? Is this relevant to Geography?’ And I never have found the
answer. I don't really consider myself to be a geographer.
After two or three years of the course I just wanted to get my degree, so I thought, ‘I'll
do the least amount of Geography I can, and the most amount of Cartography I can
do,’ because I enjoyed Cartography more and I could understand it more than I could
the concepts in Geography. It seemed to be more interesting. I found drawing more
enjoyable drawing than writing and things like that. I was slightly disillusioned with
Geography then, so I put more of my weight behind Cartography. I think we could do
12 modules in Cartography (I don't know what it is now) and eight in Geography,
something like that. I went down that route to ensure that I got myself a good degree.
The staff were friendly. In class they were pretty amenable. David Pepper could say
some odd things sometimes. Peter Keene seemed to be okay, easy-going, but they
all expected you to do your work. I can remember one thing in one of the lectures.
Martin Haigh wasn't getting many people putting their hands up to answer questions,
so one day he said, ‘Right, all those people wearing blue will answer questions
today.’ That put us on the spot. When it came to me I thought, ‘Oh, no, I can't think
of anything, my mind's gone blank.’
Some of the teaching in the classroom could be a bit dry. Especially one of the
Cartography lecturers. He could be a bit monosyllabic. It seemed like he was
reading from his notes, and for the past fifteen years it had been the same notes.
In Geography it seemed to be that we would get into groups and then do all this
research and then come back in x weeks and present a case for using groynes
instead of gabions on beaches and projects like that. In Cartography there seemed
to be hardly any seminars. Some group work. I remember going to Belgium to get
some data together. It seemed like we were just out there to enjoy ourselves and
then have half a day to get some data together. That was more of an individual
project. We had to decide what we were going to do, what paper we were going to
do it on, the format, and after that it was more of an individual project. Then we could
put all the pages together and put them into a book.
I definitely gained from field trips – being in the context and in the environment. We
would go to North Wales looking at glacial valleys or go to the Centre for Alternative
Technology. The Centre for Alternative Technology was pretty good. The running
joke was that we were there for slave labour. Building things. I always remember it for
the food and the insight into how people organised a place like that. If you wanted to
have meat you had to go out and kill it first. Otherwise it was all vegetarian for the
whole week. They were like a self-contained unit, so they had to chip in together to do
the mundane jobs, like getting rid of sewerage, watering it down and putting it on
plants. You had to club together to build things, and find out how difficult it is to make
electricity and get water and things like that. In the evening we were having group
discussions about alternative ways of thinking. That was a bit of an eye-opener.
Actually being there and seeing things and doing things was far better than just reading
about them in a book. It sunk into my brain somewhere along the line that I had to be
environmentally aware. What we are doing to the planet can't sustain itself. All this
consumption. We have to find better ways of working with the planet.
I haven't been actively campaigning, like the Newbury by-pass or whatever, but I've
always thought that you shouldn't just go for the money, the money, the money. You
should have a job that you like but also get paid money. I was in America last year
and was appalled at the conspicuous consumption. You had to drive everywhere.
Bigger is better. I just kept saying to myself, ‘Why do they do this?’ I don't think I
ever spend on things just to throw away. I've got my car though. I'm still not a
vegetarian but I eat far less meat. Back then it was all beefburgers and steaks.
Going down the pub was the main thing. I tried to be in the football society but I
didn't do any good there. I went cycling a couple of times. They were so much better
than me that I thought ‘Oh, Gosh.’ So I wasn't really involved in societies at Poly. It
blew over me a bit. It was usually down the pub with my friends, socialising. I
probably broke about even financially. I think I had a bit of a debt. Now I go down to
Tesco and there's a couple of students working on the till. It seems more and more
that students have to work to support themselves.
You got the chance to be with – or make friends with or whatever – a whole range of
different people. Not just people from Nottingham or middle-class people or working-
class people or whatever you want to call them. A range of different people from all
places through the country. I didn't really mix with the people from Oxford University.
I perceived them to be all upper-middle-class people. They seemed to be more
down-to-earth in Cartography than in Geography. The Cartography students seemed
to be less public-schoolish. They weren't so opinionated.
I lived in hall the first year. I remember noisy neighbours in Cheney Hall. Sometimes
it was really irritating. You didn't have that if you lived with your parents all the time.
That was another thing to get used to. The second and third years I lived out. I
made quite a few friends. I'm still in touch with two friends. One did Computing and
one did Cartography. We keep in touch and they live within 30 or 40 miles of here.
We see each other every month. You get to know people who are thinking more like
you are, people who want to get away from their home town.
After I'd graduated I went back to Nottingham and worked for nearly a year at in the
Marine Geology Department at the British Geological Survey (BGS), doing what
seemed like an endless stream of undersea contours. It was more cartographic-
based than Geography. I had done the work experience at BGS for a few weeks
during the summer of my second year at Oxford Poly and that was probably how I
got that job. Then I got a better job down here, and I've been here nine years. I'm
the cartographer in a Geography department, responsible for all the maps, all the
diagrams, presentation work, bits and bobs, for the whole department. I do some
maps for the publications unit and occasional maps and diagrams for departments
like History or Psychology.
There seemed to be more cartographic jobs available when I was at BGS than when
I was finishing my degree, or maybe I wasn't looking hard enough at the end of the
third year. I had ten months at BGS and most of my holiday days were spent going
to interviews for all these cartographic jobs. I had something like 12 interviews
before I got this position down here. That was probably because I didn't interview too
well. I was too nervous. Other people I knew from Oxford Poly were going for these
jobs as well, because Oxford Poly was one of the main sources.
What Use is a Degree?
Getting away is certainly part of it. I've got away to the south and got what I think is a
better job than I had up in Nottingham. Some people seem to get offered half the
jobs they go for but it wasn't like that for me, so I couldn't be choosy about where I
wanted to live. I did want to get away from Nottingham to see the ‘big, bad world’
and get another view on life. I've been up to Nottingham, and seen some people I
know from way back, and they've just stayed in their own part of Nottingham and
their own social group (or whatever you want to call it). I suppose they have
progressed, but it seems like to me that they haven't wanted to look further afield
than their home town. They just tend to stay there.
My parents are quite old – we missed half a generation somewhere – and they've been
in Nottingham for 40 or 50 years. I've been here, there, want to go on different
holidays, want to see the world. I'm interested in more things than I would have been
had I just stayed in Nottingham. I think a degree opens your eyes to what is out there.
If you go down from your home town to do a degree, and you want to travel, and you
do something like Geography, and you learn about all the places and different
concepts, you want to see them for real. You want to go and see the world in
general. Or you probably just like travelling. Some people do and some people
don't. Every year I'll go somewhere with my friends, because I get on with them –
Norway, Portugal, Crete, the United States ...
Working in a Geography department, it all filters through to you. One of my friends
says that he hasn't done any specific Geography things in his work, so he's forgotten
lots of things about Geography, but because I'm here every week, talking to
quaternary scientists or human geographers, I've still got a feel for it. I don't have in-
depth conversations, but we overview things or talk about specific things. If they
explain to me how something was formed I can understand it, whereas people who
haven't got a Geography background would find it more difficult.
I would probably find my job harder without a degree because if you are drawing you
don't want to just draw the thing straight off, a few lines here, coastline there, or
whatever. You want to know the background, so you have more of a feel for your
subject, so you can see in the drawing how it was formed, how the ice was coming
down here, like that. That background. Both disciplines are relevant to what I'm
I got a lot of satisfaction from actually getting the degree, and being able to apply for all
these jobs, and presumably the employers will say, ‘Oh, he's got a degree, he must be
half good.’ I think it helped me there, with a degree, to get a better job. It's definitely
satisfying, to know that I could go and do a degree, get it and then go and find a job
and not just any old job but one that I was interested in. Yeah, it definitely helped.
A Geography degree can encompass anything really. I'm not sure where the people
doing Geography went to but I distinctly remember people on the Cartography side
going into specific cartographic jobs. Those jobs seemed to be around at that time.
They don't seem to be around now. It's all moving towards computing and GIS
(geographical information systems). When I started here it was all pen and ink. I've
got this on the brain because I'm trying to get more into that field rather than just stay
doing the straight cartographic things that I'm doing now. I've had to learn how to
use computers. Ten years ago, as part of my degree, it was just very rudimentary
drawing of maps on a computer and a bit of word-processing on BBC computers.
What I'm doing now is 99.9 per cent cartographic work on computers. It's had to be
on-the-job training for all these new computer processes, using computer programs,
learning to be au fait with computers. That's generally how it's gone in the last ten
years. If I didn't learn it, I'd get left behind, so I've had to learn it.
To a certain extent, doing all the research techniques helped. You go to a library,
look through things and gen up on this, that and the other. One thing leads to
another and you can research that too. If I hadn't done a degree I probably wouldn't
have known how to do that properly. Yeah, I think doing a degree has made me
want to know how to learn more about computers, but a lot of it has been filtering
down, using more computers and more computers. On-the-job training. I haven't
been on very many proper training courses except ‘How to use Photoshop’ and
retouching programs and things like that.
From doing the degree you're taught to go about things in lots of different ways. I
think around problems more and get different viewpoints on how to solve problems.
You're supposed to have an open mind about something, to look at all the things and
put yourself in the shoes of all the different people. Not just one kind of thought
about it. You have to look at all the angles of what people think.
Everything was compressed in those three years. It was a steep learning curve.
Lots of new friends and new situations. In a way it was perhaps a more eventful
time. Doing different things to what I would have done if I'd stayed in Nottingham.
Those three years were very compact, whereas the pace seems to have slowed
down in the ten years since. Probably because I haven't changed jobs in the last
nine years. I don't know whether I've been here too long or not.
The Class of 1988
Suzanne Caulfield, a BSc graduate in Geography and Geology, recently returned to
Britain after several years abroad. It is a stroke of good luck to catch her in the
country ... or maybe bad luck because it was a near miss on a trip to Australia.
When we first speak, on the telephone, she is staying with her parents in Leicester.
When we meet, in August, it is outside a south London underground station. The
interview begins at a French-style cafe, where the atmosphere is noisy, tense and
intriguing. Later we shift to a park bench. Suzanne is 28, unmarried, and she loves
Choosing the Course
I went straight from school to Oxford Poly. I wish I'd had a year out now. I think I
would have got more out of it if I'd been a year older, a bit more mature. I would
really recommend somebody to take a year out – to find out what you want to do.
I did Business Studies at A level, along with Geography and Geology, and I'd always
been interested in Human Geography. People said, ‘Why are you doing Human
Geography with Geology, why not Physical Geography?’ because Geology is more
the physical side of Geography. But I didn't want to streamline myself too much into
one area, and I wanted to keep the Human Geography going. I thought the physical
side of Geography would be too similar to Geology. A lot of it overlapped with the
Geology we were learning – the landforms and that sort of thing – so there was no
point duplicating it.
I was interested in Town Planning and Politics as well. I thought it was nice the way
you could choose on the modular course. You didn't have to focus on one subject.
That was why I was quite keen to go there. I went down to Oxford for my interview
and had a look around, and thought it would be a nice place to be for three years.
Close to London. A nice city.
In Geology you just sat in the lecture theatre and it was a case of the lecturer talking
the whole time and you just making notes. And that was it. There was no interaction
really. Then we had the practical sessions where we were in the lab and looking
down the microscope. That was more relaxed and interactive.
In the Geography it wasn't a case of making notes. It was more understanding the
underlying principles of what they were teaching – the changing Geography of Britain
or the political side. They were more concerned that you understood it, and they
wanted you to discuss it in class. It was nice that I had the two different styles. It
was more open and down-to-earth in Geography. But I think it does help.
Communication and teamwork. You need that when you leave.
I remember the way they set the classes out. It was very informal. Quite often we
had to move the tables and chairs around to rearrange the room. I think that makes
for a nice relaxed atmosphere. I guess some people took advantage of the way it
was run. Because the approach was a bit laid back, you could see how people
wouldn't bother really. People wouldn't show up, or they would chat amongst
themselves, not really focusing on what was going on. But I think you get that
everywhere, don't you? Whatever the task. They want to encourage group work, but
you've got to make sure that the focus is still on the subject you are teaching. That's
where it may fall down. But I don't remember ever getting stressed out in
Geography, whereas in Geology I had to work at it.
I'm trying to remember the modules that I did. I remember Britain's Changing
Geography and Environmental Geology and Geography. I thought the theme was
more political than environmental. Topical issues of the day. Controversial subjects.
A lot of it was what was in the news at the time, which appealed to me. That's why I
wanted to do that human side.
I can't remember Geography lecturers in particular. That's a bit of a blur. But I can
remember the Geology lecturers distinctly. That's weird, isn't it? Maybe I did focus
more on my Geology. I must have done. I got on better with the other students in
Geology and ended up living with two geologists. I put more energy into the Geology,
and saw the Geography as a bit of a sidekick, just for my interest really. Looking back,
I think it was really good that I did that side as well. It was better than focusing a
hundred per cent on the Geology. It gives you a bit of a breather in that subject.
I enjoyed the field trips. I remember going to Brighton with Geography. We stayed in
a hotel on the beach. You got into teams of three or four people, and we all had
different projects to do. Ours was the Restoration of the West Pier. They had two
other piers there – three in total. I don't know whether they've gone ahead with it, but
the council were planning a £1 million makeover of the West Pier to keep the tourists
coming in. That stands out in my mind as far as projects go.
I spent one summer on the Isle of Skye doing my Geology dissertation. I spent
another summer hitchhiking around Europe. My parents supported me at college.
They always said to me, ‘We'll support you through your college years and then after
that you're on your own.’ And that's the way it is. When I went to Australia after I
graduated I knew that I had to find jobs. I didn't have any other option. I guess I'm
lucky that they supported me. They'd rather me study than have a part-time job. I
don't know whether that was right or wrong. Looking at CVs, it looks good if you've
had part-time work. I think it does you good as well.
I ended up working as a geologist after I graduated. I didn't plan it. It just happened.
Looking back now, I realise that the lifestyle of being a geologist, stuck out in remote
areas, was not something that you could do for a long time. I wasn't aware of that at
the time. It's okay for a couple of years. But everybody who is in the business will
tell you that you can't have much of a life with it. Wherever you are. South Africa.
Chile. Australia. It sound great but exploration work is three weeks here and one
week there, or six days here and two days off. It's not very sociable. I worked for
about four years in that industry and now I've completely changed direction.
I wanted to do the travel bit, going round the world. If you're working for 30 or 40
years, you may as well take some time out before you get stuck. More and more
people are travelling and that rubs off on everybody else, doesn't it? There are that
many people who have been on a one-year holiday to Australia. It is so common.
A friend who had been out to Australia and had worked in geology said, ‘You can
earn good money and finance your travels back.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, why not, I'll do
that.’ I ended up going straight to Perth and getting a job in two weeks. I worked for
eight months and then used that money to travel back through New Zealand and
America. When I got back I was broke. I was away a year and a half in total.
I think that travel is in my blood. In my family everybody has travelled around. But
my degree certainly helped me to finance myself. People recognise a degree with
the opportunity to make decent money, and they also fast-track graduates into
management. I would recommend people to do a degree if they can.
While working as a geologist it was easy to find contract-work in Australia. That's the
way it is. One of the things that I didn't like about it was that I stood out too much –
‘You're English.’ Trying to get a permanent job over there and assimilate into the
society was difficult. Nobody takes you seriously: ‘You're going to go back to
England, aren't you?’
To start with, you got all the attention and everybody wanted to chat to you – you
were English, you were female and you were in geology. But the novelty wears off
and it got me down after a while. It was harder to gain the respect as a female. It
took a bit of time and obviously you get all the jokes at the start. That side of it got
me down – ‘Just leave me, I'm here to do a job.’ But there were other female
geologists and we got on really well. You had to keep that professionalism. I've got
an Australian passport now, so I can always go back. Maybe I'll go back in five
years. I don't know. But not right now.
In Geology [at Oxford Polytechnic] there were probably about ten or 12 females out
of 50 or 60 in our year. Out of those females, I believe only about three or four have
actually gone into geology as a career. I guess that's not too bad. Females are
getting into the industry more and more as the time goes on, compared with when I
first started. I guess I'm not really much of a girly girl. That's just part of my make-
up. I'm not particularly keen on working in an office full of girls.
After travelling I did a ski season in Switzerland. I love skiing and it was something
that I'd always wanted to do. We went on family holidays from when we were really
young. I was at a bit of a loss when I got back from travelling and I think I was
putting off getting a full-time job. I went for an interview and got a job for Bladon
Lines, part of the Inghams Group, quite a big ski company. They have chalets all
over Europe and it was an experience. I definitely recommend it if you love skiing
and meeting people. It's very social and I guess it complemented my geology
lifestyle. I needed that social contact with lots of different people and young people.
Then I went back to Australia and worked for a year doing six-month contracts. Then
I came back to Britain and did a one-year Masters in Mineral Exploration and Mining
Geology at Leicester University. At the time I made the decision to do a Masters I
was working for Plutonic Resources in Australia. I had the option to stay there, but I
needed to exercise my mind rather than get into a job that might be quite
monotonous and streamlined. I wanted to learn a bit more about different mineral
deposits. I find it really interesting and I just thought it might help. It was more a
case of not getting lazy really. I just felt the need to study a bit more. I think it was a
good thing. Definitely. But now I'm out of geology. You can't really look back on it
and say it was a waste of time – it wasn't.
As part of my Masters, I did a six-month project in Canada. I worked in northern
Saskatchewan and that was amazing. It was Saskatchewan Energy and Mines, the
Canadian geological survey, which is run by the government. I was working with one
other person and our supervisor. It was a remote area in the north and we were
flown in by float plane. We camped there and had food drops every week. I was
doing a detailed geological map of the area. We were prospecting for copper – to
see if there was any potential for copper mineralisation so they could either write off
the area or follow it up. It was an area they hadn't really looked at. I guess that was
because it was so remote. We set up a computer generator so I was entering all the
data on a computer. Do you know the CAD system? Computer-aided Design. It is a
method of producing a map. At each location I put all my data measurements into
the computer. I spent three months out there doing the map and then three months
back in the office – writing the report, getting analysis done on the rocks we had
collected and pulling it all together.
Then I went back out to Australia and worked for RTZ for a year and a half, initially at
the headquarters in Perth, later for the exploration division based in Karrantha. My
jobs have been mainly outdoors. I've always been that sort of person. I've always
been camping and hiking and doing that sort of thing. That's why I loved the geology
work. At Oxford Poly I was in the Army Officers Training Corp for a while and I loved
it. You go out on an exercise every month and then you have one evening every
other week in the mess at the training centre. I did a lot of caving in the Blue
Mountains in Australia and I was a member of the Sydney University caving club.
Those are things that I probably wouldn't have got into if I hadn't gone to poly.
When I came back in January 1997 I did another ski season. I'd spent a long spell in
the middle of nowhere doing my mapping and was just getting back into things. I
then did various office-based jobs while I was living in Sydney. I came back from
Australia in March 1998. It's a bit confusing, isn't it, because I've been back and
forth? Over the last few years I probably haven't spent much time in Britain. I've
missed out on the news and all the British things. That's why I'm so glad to be back.
I've always had an interest in property and that's the direction I'm going in now. It's
been hard to change career paths, but I wouldn't recommend geological work. Now
I'm probably falling back on my Geography and the skills I learned there. How towns
grew up and the buildings and that. I've always had the interest in that.
I feel I want to settle down and do an ordinary nine-to-five job. People say I'm crazy
to do that, but I haven't had that since I graduated. I haven't had the sort of scene
where you can join a club and do normal things, which is what I want now. I think I've
had enough tramping around.
I'm at the stage now where I don't need a degree for the job I'm going to be doing. I
have to start at the bottom, on a low wage, but I'm willing to take that because I know
that if you're at the right company, and you pick up things, then they will recognise
that and you can move up quite quickly. The job I'm about to start is sales
negotiating at a High Street estate agency. I may hate it, but it's just something that
I've always wanted to do. My Dad was in property – he was a developer before he
retired – so I've had that side when I was growing up, showing people round houses,
helping him with the business.
I'm quite close to my immediate family and because I've lived abroad for a number of
years I feel now that I want to be closer to them. My family haven't really pushed me
one way or another. They just encourage me. If I enjoy a certain subject, then they
say, ‘Carry on with it, if you enjoy it.’ I guess they did say it was a good idea to go on
and study after A level. I didn't really think of not doing that. That was just the route.
They were influencing me at the time because they probably thought that it would
help me in the long run. If I had children, I wouldn't say that that was the way they
would have to go. It's different for different people. I would encourage them to have
a year out, just to focus on whether they wanted to study or to see if they wanted to
go into work and progress that way. If you've done a Geography degree it's
something you can use to go into anything really. It's not a strong subject, is it?
In estate agency, all they're interested in is if you can sell. Have you got the sales
ability? Can you relate to different sorts of people? These days it's not a matter of
being pushy. I think it's just being able to relate to people and find out what they
want. The days have gone when you had the salesman who talks a load of crap just
to get you to buy the car or the house or whatever.
I had difficulties because what I've done and what I've studied is not related to estate
agency in any way. In fact when I've been to recruitment agencies, when I started
temping, they actually wiped off all the Geology I had done and concentrated on my
administration stuff: ‘What secretarial skills have you got? What reception work?’ I
temped for about a year and that's all they looked at. Some people don't seem to
think that the skills will transfer.
It's been difficult to explain that I want to settle down. I've been for a few job interviews
and it looks as though I've travelled around a bit. That goes against me. They think,
‘Is she going to stay with us. Is she going to go off on another ski season?’
I've lost touch with a lot of people from the poly. There are a couple of girls I keep in
touch with: a girl who did biology, and another geologist, who's working on the North
Sea at the moment. She's one of my very good friends and has only recently got into
geology. Quite a lot of people actually chose to stay in Oxford ... for some reason.
One friend, who I studied A levels with, went straight into a bank, and I guess she's
done it the other way round. She's done really well and now she's their small-
business manager. She's worked her way up to management and she's doing an
MBA [Masters of Business Administration] and the company's paying for it. She's
worked at the bank for ten years and that's all she's known and she's really happy.
That's one way of doing it, whereas my pathway is totally different. Travelling.
Totally unstable. I guess I've met more people and experienced life in different ways.
I'm not saying it's better or worse, it's just a different outlook on life. You can look at
it another way and think that it's going to be hard for somebody who's gone my route
to actually focus in and settle down. I'm always looking for something else, whereas
my friend's quite satisfied. I push myself. I'm always thinking that there's something
out there that's got to be done. It's interesting, isn't it? Looking at it now, she's a
manager, and I'm just starting off at the bottom.
What Use is a Degree?
I think a lot of the learning is subconscious. You can't specify it too much because
it's just there at the back of your mind. If you're a bit older when you do your degree
then it will stick in your mind a bit more. I did my Masters degree three years later,
and I got a lot more out of that. A lot of the degree at Oxford Poly was learning stuff
for the exam and then your head was empty. I remember cramming for exams. It's
not a good way of doing it, is it? I think the coursework was better for you.
I would say that a degree is a lot of use. You've got the study side of it, where you're
specialising and learning and developing, but you've also got the other skills and the
opportunities that spring up from interacting with like-minded people. You are mixing
with people and talking to them about different ideas. The network. You can argue
this point from another angle. If you go straight into work, at 16 or 18, then I think
you may get a bit narrow-minded in some ways. I don't know whether the whole
We had to do presentations, which is really good for you. Especially if you go to work
for a larger company. If you are going to get into the management side, you're going
to have to give presentations using overheads. When I worked for Hamersley, which
is part of RTZ, a huge mining company, I had to do just that – give talks. We all had to.
I was given an area, I did a geological map of that area, and I had to report on the
progress – whether the exploration could go ahead, whether I recommend it to go
ahead, and then to spend money and drill in the area. Each month we had meetings
with the whole of the office, and we would each go round and say our little piece. It
wasn't so much standing up at the front, it was more ‘round the table’. That's part of
the Geography side which came through, whereas we didn't do any of that in Geology.
The jobs straight after I finished were quite specialised. A lot of what I used was only the
basic Geology. I took a series of little Geology handbooks with me to Australia –
Sedimentary, Metamorphic, Igneous. When I lived in Australia I moved quite a lot of
stuff over and after my Masters I took some heavy books with me. I used a lot of that
course in my work afterwards. That was much more useful because it was more geared
towards the workplace. We were doing projects that we would expect to do with a
company – soil surveys, generating maps, all the things you would do in the work.
Overall, the skills that you learn are generalist skills really – organisational skills,
working with others, report-writing, project-work, working to deadlines, using your
initiative, how to motivate yourself, all those things. They are the things that come
out and what employers look for as well. Mainly motivation and organisational skills
and communication skills.
I've done a lot of teamwork but I've also done a lot of work on my own, which I
wouldn't say is particularly good for you. I've done a lot of geological mapping on my
own. That's one of the reasons why I got out. Working in remote areas is not a
particularly sociable thing to do. There's only so much you can do. Now I'm going
completely in the opposite direction. I'm going to be working with people, meeting
lots of different people, and it's completely different. A total change in lifestyle.
On the telephone he is friendly and obliging. It seems a straightforward task to
arrange an interview. The customary details are forwarded – a letter of introduction
and a one-page outline on the project – and a contact number for Alan Jenkins is
included in case Neil Stephenson wishes to check the validity of the project. This
was standard practice for all the interviewees.
A week later, a follow-up telephone call results in an answerphone message. Three
more messages are left during the next fortnight. Then a second letter sent (with a
stamped-addressed envelope). No reply.
We were aware that participation was voluntary. When we started the project our
target was to contact 15 of the 18 graduates and maybe interview 12 or 13 of them.
One of our concerns was that some graduates might think they were being chased
by the Students Loans Authority or the Child Support Agency.
We were satisfied when we were able to contact all 18 graduates and interview 16 of
them, but we still wondered about the two non-respondents. Why had we not been
able to interview Neil Stephenson for instance?
Was there something upsetting about his experience of doing a degree?
Did he not wish to revisit the past?
Was his present life too busy?
Were some things about college life still unresolved?
Was it all so long ago that he didn't feel he had anything to contribute now?
Had he moved on so much that he did not want to look back?
Was there some secret that had been kept from friends and family?
Or was the approach completely wrong?
These days, people have to be very careful about fake interviewers. Maybe some
people guard their privacy.
Neil Stephenson comes from the north and has an upper second degree in
Economics and Geography. He is unmarried and lives in south London. That is all
Imagine an cosy cottage in a village on the edge of Exmoor. You go over the bridge,
over the river, fork right at the chemist and park in the High Street before walking
down a narrow lane.
She is working from home today. Papers are strewn across the kitchen table and the
outline for “What Use is a Degree?” is pinned to the noticeboard. She has obviously
given the interview some thought. It is a glorious sunny day in late-August and you
wonder if life could be any better.
Ruth McArthur comes from Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire. She is approaching 30
and has an upper second degree in Geography and Planning.
Choosing the Course
When I was doing A levels I applied to various universities. I was going to do History
but I didn't get the History grade I needed and at that point I decided to take a year
out. I went to France for a year and taught English in a school in Brittany.
I was going to retake my History A level but while I was in France I changed my
whole outlook on what I wanted to do. I applied to other institutions, including Oxford
Poly, to do History and Geography. Then, when I arrived at Oxford Poly in the
autumn, History wasn't a burning desire any more. I saw the Planning course and
thought I'd really like to do that. So I dropped History, did Planning and carried on
with the Geography.
I knew Oxford Poly had a good reputation and I knew I would be doing good courses.
They gave me an unconditional offer so I didn't have to retake any exams. And I didn't
have to come back from Brittany for an interview. All sorts of pragmatic decisions.
My Dad taught in further education and he was really committed to state education
so I was brought up with that outlook. He was always very pleased that I went to
Oxford Poly. He felt that he had a handle on reputations of places. I remember him
ringing me in France, desperately trying to persuade me not to choose one particular
poly in London. I almost went to that one, just to be rebellious and difficult, but
eventually I listened and decided that perhaps he did have some idea. I'd been to
Oxford a couple of times. I knew it was a nice city and I wanted to be in a city, not
miles out on a campus.
My friends from my year in France thought Oxford Polytechnic sounded fantastic
because they'd heard of ‘Oxford’ and the polytechnics in France are the really top-tier
universities ... so I didn't disabuse them of that.
It was quite a small department – it never felt impersonal – but they must have been
dealing with an enormous number of students. I seem to remember a cock-up the
year that I arrived. There had been a postal strike in the holidays and they made the
wrong assumptions about the number of students who were going to get the grades
for the courses that they'd applied for. The poly must have accepted people on the
basis of grades, and there was no post and lots of people did much better than they'd
expected, so we ended up having a huge year, half as much again as it usually was.
There wasn't enough room for us all in the first year. Quite often people were sitting
on the floor without desks. It was really crowded and we were all moaning. I
remember that whole period at college as being one of feeling encroachment. More
and more students and less and less space. The polytechnic was being squeezed,
the classrooms were full, the lecturers had too much to do and the lecturers had to
do lots of research to get money in from outside sources. I remember that kind of
Thatcher oppression being really strong. That whole feeling of being stamped on.
I went along to the initial courses and I was quite excited about being at college.
Having had a year of teaching English I was suddenly being taught and it was quite
relaxing. But I remember sitting in a lecture on an introductory History module and I
was not feeling enthusiastic. Something was wrong. It was not that it was an
uninteresting History course, it was just that I wasn't burning to do it.
I was vaguely looking around and I happened to notice this Planning course which
hadn't been in the prospectus. I went to them and said, ‘This looks like a course I want
to do, can I do it next year when it starts?’ They said, ‘Well, actually, there's been a
mess-up, it should have been in the prospectus as starting this year, we've got hardly
any students on it, come and do Planning.’ So that was really good and it linked quite
well with the Geography. I was interested in how humans relate to the environment.
I can't remember the first term very well, but there was one module in the first year
which was run by Judy Chance. The thing that struck me was that she was very
keen for people to stand up and do presentations. I was quite frightened about that.
I did one Physical Geography module that I wasn't very excited about, and I
remember thinking at that point that I didn't want to continue doing Physical
Geography, although I'd really enjoyed it at school. I decided to move more into
Human Geography – Geography was split very clearly between the two. I went for
the courses that I found interesting. If I found the person standing up was inspiring
and communicated well then I tended to be interested. I wasn't particularly focused.
I hadn't thought through my course that much. I was more interested in whether it
grabbed me at the time and I think the teaching was very important. Alan Jenkins
made an impression. I just remember being really interested in the things that he
said and I wanted to get involved.
It's almost that for me the teaching methods come out stronger than what was taught.
I don't think my Planning course was incredibly different in the way things were
taught. On the whole I don't remember lecturers standing at the front lecturing,
though that must have happened on some occasions. The courses I chose to do
were more interactive. There were a lot of presentations, which has been really
useful, and lots of seminars.
I remember being impressed by the teaching methods. I just remember feeling that
they were really progressive, and it was quite exciting to be taught by people who
were thinking about how they taught and whether students would take it in. Alan
Jenkins stands out. I remember him saying – I think about this all the time at work –
that most people only have a short attention span and then they switch off. He used
to deliberately talk for a bit and stop and then we would discuss what we had been
taught and then we would carry on. Sometimes, at conferences in particular, I think,
‘How long is it going to be before people twig this?’ Generally, people tend to
schedule courses or conferences for a whole afternoon or a whole morning, and they
talk until it's acceptable to stop – lunchtime or when everyone's got to go home. It's
difficult to concentrate for such a long time. I find I relate back to what Alan Jenkins
said, because I don't think it's any different. It's how you communicate information
and how you're effective. I found that really interesting at college and it's obviously
stayed with me. I would like to put that idea into practice.
I liked working in a ‘good’ group because the amount we could achieve was
exponentially greater than we could have achieved on our own. There's nothing like
having a few minds thinking on something. But that depended very much on how the
team jelled. I remember working in some groups where it didn't jell and it became a
real struggle to get out something acceptable. I wasn't a particularly keen student, I
wasn't beavering away in the library every minute of every day by any stretch, but
there were certain people on the course who were very unkeen. That could be quite
hard work sometimes. I remember one particular module where group work was a
complete nightmare. Nobody in the group seemed very excited by it and we came
out with an incredibly lacklustre bit of work that as far as I could make out should
have failed ... but it didn't.
I believe that successful group work is partly to do with the clarity of the brief. The
group should understand what they are expected to achieve. Most of my courses
had written briefs and that was good. But I also think it depended on how many per
cent the work was worth. People in Geography and Planning generally put a fair
amount of effort into their group work because the projects were worth ten or twenty
per cent, but I have friends on other courses in the poly where they did a lot of work
that was worth two or three per cent, and I remember them saying that they couldn't
put as much effort in as there were too many projects worth very little each. So
putting some value on the work and some recognition of it helps.
I think it's partly communication and personalities as well, whether the people in the
group are committed or not and whether they are working to the same aims in the
project and the module. I remember some people on the course who were being
paid to do the degree – it might have been by the armed forces – and they effectively
had jobs at the end of the course. They didn't have to get a very good degree to get
their job, and I remember noticing in the last year that some seemed to put in less
effort than people who were concerned about their grade of degree because of the
job they might get.
We went to Brighton on one field-trip. Something to do with ... mmm ... I didn't
understand why we were on the field course at the time so it's not surprising that I
can't be very clear about it now. We had to do a special project in a group and go
away and research something, but I remember thinking that we were doing a huge
subject which couldn't possibly be dealt with. We managed to cobble something
together and submit it.
We had various teaching methods on field courses. One was that we were in a
group doing some research and another was doing a presentation that had to be
some kind of role play. Everybody seemed to hate doing role plays. I remember
finding all that a bit embarrassing as not everybody was brilliant at acting them out in
front of other people.
I can't remember any other field trips. Oh, yes, the Alternative Technology Centre.
And we went to Caer Llan. Thanks for reminding me. Now you mention it, funnily
enough, I do think about both of those. I haven't completely forgotten about them.
The Caer Llan one was interesting. We went to Blaenavon and looked at an old pit
which had been shut down and reopened as a heritage attraction. Former miners
had found a way of creating jobs by reopening their pit, but there was another
proposal for a heritage attraction very close by – an artificial pit which was a lot more
glossy than the real one. I remember being shocked by that. There was a real mine
run by former miners and a developer was proposing something which would
jeopardise all the work of local people trying to set up industry in the town. That
probably fed into my desire to work in planning.
And the other field trip was to the Alternative Technology Centre. Yeah, that was
whacky and interesting. I quite often see publications that come out of the
Alternative Technology Centre so I'm pleased to have spent some time there and
have an experience of that. I don't think I would have got there under my own steam
at the time. And just spending some time with other students was good fun.
The first year I was living in a hall-of-residence with lots of other students, so it was a
very full-on student life. I remember going to the freshers fair with everyone from my
residence and them all heading off to the Rugby Club and Tory Party stalls and me
heading in a completely different direction. I remember being really clear about
wanting to have a good time while I was at college. I wanted to do lots of things and
make the most of my holidays. I remember taking a while to find the people I really
wanted to spend time with. I was not too fazed about being at college because I'd
had a year of living away already. I remember quite enjoying it really and being quite
relaxed about it.
I did lots of different part-time jobs. I tended to work once or twice a week, in a pub
or something, and I worked nearly every holiday in various shops, pubs and offices. I
did a lot of ‘office-temping’ in London because you got more money than in Oxford.
Oxford was a nightmare for getting well-paid student jobs in the holidays because
there was so much competition. I had friends in London so I used to stay with them
and work very hard for about four weeks and get as much money as I could doing
office-temping to pay off my overdraft and go backpacking somewhere. Then I'd get
back to college with no money at all. But at least I wasn't in debt.
I wasn't fantastically thrifty and the cost of living in Oxford was really quite high.
When I started, there were still things like housing benefit, and after that was
abolished it was really difficult. I didn't understand how some people couldn't work
and not have thousands of pounds of debts. At the time all my friends had debts –
no-one admitted it if they hadn't – and it was just a matter of how many debts you
could get away with. I was always sure that at the end of it I would get a fairly okay
paid full-time job, so I just risked it. I wanted to have a good time as well. Not just
stay in all the time.
I did a lot of cleaning jobs with an agency called Oxford Aunts that a lot of students
were attached to. I did loads of work for them, cycling off around Oxford to different
addresses. It was brilliant because I wasn't very good at organising my work – I was a
bit of a crisis merchant – and I could ring them up the day before and say, ‘I haven't got
a deadline, I'll come and do some cleaning.’ That extra bit of money kept me going.
My second year at college I lived in a shared house. I was eligible for housing
benefit and everyone got this huge cheque about January or February. Then I think
they abolished housing benefit and everyone found it really tough. I think they also
stopped people claiming unemployment benefit or income support in holidays. At
that point it became imperative to make sure that there were jobs. I remember
everybody complaining about it all the time. It was a really big issue – money and
not having money and ‘How could the government do this to us?’ I'm sure that
students now don't even realise that you could have had housing benefit. So
comparatively we were in a good position but at that time it seemed like everything
was being taken away. And the grants were frozen. I didn't get a grant, my
grandparents and my parents paid for me, but I didn't want to be asking them for
more money than I was getting. I felt really awful that at the age of 19 and 20 I was
still taking money off them. I wanted to be as independent as I could be, but I wasn't
really independent at all financially.
A lot of my friends, and my boyfriend at the time, were in a similar position to me in
that they were always in debt by about the middle of the term. We spent a lot of time
trooping to the bank's student advisor and negotiating. I knew that I'd really made it
as a student-in-debt when my bank's student advisor waved to me in the street. But
not everybody was in dire straits. Some people managed to run cars. If I had known
how expensive it was to live in Oxford, with the rent and the cost of living, I might not
have applied there. But I was naive and used to being looked after by my parents.
But I'm glad I went. I don't regret it at all.
I wasn't a great student activist at the time, although I had been involved with things like
CND before I arrived at the Poly. I didn't go on a lot of demonstrations, except that a
group of us went down to London on a Gulf War one. I remember being quite shocked
at this war happening and we were quite cynical about the reasons for it. There were big
demonstrations about grant freezes, or was it student loans? I just remember there
being quite a lot of student demos that I felt allied to but I didn't actually get it together to
go to. I came from quite a political family. I went to college and I saw things through
those same eyes and I came out the other end not much different.
I remember there being NATFHE strikes, and I remember student strikes which I took
part in. We didn't come into lectures. What a sacrifice! I remember there being some
sort of student cramming demo in the poly where we all squeezed into the director's
corridors to show our dissatisfaction with overcrowding. But in general there was a
feeling of great apathy at Oxford Poly.
I'd been really interested in music before I arrived at the Poly but Oxford was useless for
big bands. There were no venues. I remember feeling lucky that London was so close.
I didn't have that much money so I wore jeans a lot. I probably looked perfect for being
a student. It was the late-eighties and there were still Sloanes about and they all
seemed to wear the same thing – blue-and-white stripey shirts with upturned collars,
pearls and tweed skirts, or brogues and corduroys if they were blokes. And they all
seemed to do Estate Management. They were a great source of amusement.
I remember thinking that Oxford Poly was a very rich poly with lots of very privileged
kids. There were lots of beautiful, tall, blonde, elegant women. That's how it felt at the
time. It seemed clear to me that a few people in my hall of residence had only come to
Oxford Poly because they really wanted to be at the university. If they couldn't get
there they would take second-best and go to the poly. One girl in particular told me
she was looking for a husband from Oxford University and she spent all her time
socialising with university people. There was an element of people on the Geography
course who joined the Officers Training Corp and they were away all the time on
exercises and going off to Nepal at taxpayers' expense. I remember thinking, ‘Wow,
it's just a different world really.’ I hadn't come from an unprivileged background by any
stretch, not at all, but that was a bit of an eye-opener. Very privileged.
When I graduated, the job market in planning was quite bad and it wasn't easy to get
a job without vocational qualifications. The Royal Town Planning Institute required a
postgraduate Diploma in Planning and then some experience after it. I stayed on at
the Poly – I suppose it was Oxford Brookes University by then but I still called it
Oxford Poly – to do that course. My idea was to do a year full-time, get a job and
finish the diploma part-time. As it was I stayed full-time for two years and then got a
job from there. That had a financial implication. Suddenly fees were payable, and I
found that quite tough. I was lucky. My parents helped me out and I also went into
We'd hit the national economic recession. Developers weren't developing because
house prices were very low and that was reflected in planning departments all over the
country. There was a slump in the number of planning applications received by
planning authorities, so the local authorities weren't desperately looking for more staff
to keep up with their workload. Suddenly there were only five adverts in the Planning
magazine whereas two years before there had been twenty. Towards the end of my
diploma, people were very nervous about their job chances. But I think I was a bit
scared of working as well. At the time I thought that people would expect far too much
of me and I wouldn't be able to deal with it. It was just a lack of confidence really.
By the middle of the first year of that postgraduate course it was clear to me that I
was going to need to be qualified and I also needed work experience. In the last
term of my diploma, and after I left, I did some voluntary work at Oxford City Council,
so I was starting to get some experience for my CV.
Then I went and lived at my parents' house because I didn't have a job and I couldn't
afford to live in Oxford. I wanted to be able to concentrate on applying for planning jobs.
In the autumn of that year  I got a two-month temporary job in a consultancy in
Birmingham. That gave me the confidence to feel I could work. Doing little jobs as a
student is different to having a career in something you're qualified in, and I was not
relishing the thought of spending so much time at work. As a student I was used to
working when I wanted to. Anyway, it was good doing that consultancy job because it
galvanised me into really going for it, and I saw the job as a planning assistant for
Exmoor National Park and I really wanted to work for a National Park. That was the first
job I got an interview for and I got it. I started there early in ninety-four.
I was very keen and I'd made a real effort with the application. I was nervous before
the interview, I was completely sick with fear, but when I actually got in there I wasn't
nervous and I just went for it. I had done a degree dissertation which was partly to
do with National Parks and I was quite genned up on them, and I'd spent quite a lot
of my free time in National Parks when a student. I was a member of the climbing
club and we used to go climbing in the Peaks, North Wales and Dartmoor.
The Exmoor job was as a planning assistant in what was called the Local Plan
section. The planning department was quite small. There were about seven or eight
people in it, and it was split into Development Control, which was dealing with
planning applications, and Planning Policy, which was drawing up a local plan (the
policy which underpins the planning decisions). I was helping to draw that up.
I stayed just over three years [1994-97] and then decided that I needed a change. I
was living here and walking to work because the office is five minutes away. It's just
idyllic really, a beautiful place to work, and I could easily have stayed there for ever,
but it was my first job and I really needed to get some different experience.
I decided not to apply for jobs all over the place because by this time I was living here
with my boyfriend and he works for the National Park, so there were considerations
over and above the actual career thing. I wanted a job which allowed me to live here,
and there wasn't much coming up that interested me. Then I saw this RSPB [Royal
Society for Protection of Birds] job in the job bulletin in the staff room at work. I
remember thinking, ‘I'll never get that’ and my friend said, ‘Yeah, you'll do fine.’ So I
applied for it and I got an interview and I did alright and got the job. I'm still doing
planning work, but not in the form that I originally visualised.
My work involves commenting on planning applications on behalf of the RSPB. I
work closely with other conservation organisations to try to co-ordinate our responses
on a proposed development. I'll be trying to get a feel for what the impact of this
development would be, trying to get information very quickly because we don't have
much time to comment and working on projects related to protecting wildlife and
recreation of habitats. I occasionally have to do presentations. I'm still not a hundred
per cent happy about them, but I'm a whole lot better about them than I would have
been had I not done them on my degree.
What Use is a Degree?
David Pepper made an impression. We did a compulsory module in the last year,
Nature, Environment and the Greening of Western Society [NEGWS], and that really
made an impression. I think about that course every week in some way or another.
Some of the subject-matter included in the course comes up all the time in the media
– environmental thinking. Sometimes, when I'm listening to conversations or I'm
hearing something on the radio, I find myself analysing, thinking back to some of the
things that David Pepper taught – different philosophies and ways of looking at
things. He also introduced me to Fidgof Capra and some of his books. Since then
I've become more interested in ways of thinking and ways that people see the world.
That course opened my eyes to different ways of living. David Pepper introduced
New Age stuff, which I hadn't come across much in Oxford or Cambridgeshire, and
there is loads of alternative living in the South West. I don't think I've changed the
way I live because of the course but I have been more interested to pursue things,
such as reading books that he recommended at the time. I am not sure exactly how
it changed me because I've done various other courses since graduating. I've never
really traced where my view of the world comes from.
I enjoyed a module called Atmospheric Pollution that was run by Derek ... what was his
surname? Elsom. Yeah, that was it. Again that's been good general knowledge ever
since. Environmental issues come up all the time in my job. It's good to have a basic
understanding about, for example, vehicle emissions or links with global warming. I go
back to some of the things I learned then. It's difficult to analyse exactly how the ideas
have influenced what I've done but the fact that I think about them means that there
must be something there. I would have forgotten it by now otherwise.
We were taught about how people react to their environment. With the NEGWS
course it was what people thought about their environment and the values they held
in relation to it, and with Atmospheric Pollution it was to do with man's impact on the
environment and what choices we make and what the results are of what we do. I
think that's been fairly fundamental in what I've done ever since – being a planner,
looking at where development should or shouldn't take place. In my view the impact
of individual developments on the environment are still peripheral to urban planning
decisions. It doesn't tend to look specifically at things like energy efficiency of
buildings but I would like it to more in the future. It seems to have begun to, and I
know that at the RSPB we are looking all the time at the impact of developments on
habitats and species. I think biodiversity will become more important when guiding
and controlling development, not just on wildlife sites but in the wider countryside.
I think I was quite analytical on the course. I remember being dissatisfied that you
could do quite well without being very thoughtful. It seemed possible on most
modules – not NEGWS – to regurgitate material and still get very good marks. But I
wouldn't say that I was particularly different – I did that as well!
I think it probably has helped that I didn't spend three years of my degree sitting in a
darkened lecture-hall listening to somebody talking at me, taking notes and then
going into exams. It was a lot more interactive and we were expected to do
presentations or interact at seminars and things. Maybe there's a lot to be said for
the teaching methods from that point of view.
My work now is a mixture of analysing and sharing information and quite often being
fairly persuasive as well; trying to convince people, for example, that a development
will be damaging and shouldn't be approved. I need to be able to manage loads of
different things at once. The course was quite good training for that because we had
a lot of different modules, three modules a term, had presentations to do, organising
a seminar and knowing there were exams at the end of the term. There was quite a
lot of juggling of time involved. I wasn't particularly fantastic at it when I was at
college but I think it was quite realistic. It was fairly consistent work.
I don't particularly look back at my degree course and think about what I learned,
although I do think of the ideas that I referred to before. The most benefit I got from
my degree course is, first, that I have a degree, a piece of paper, and the jobs that
I've applied for have required that useful bit of paper as a passport. But the second
thing is that it taught me to think about information that I'm given – to be able to sift
through lots of paperwork, assess what the key areas are and see different
arguments for and against a development, for example.
The experience of being away from home for three years was an important one. By
the time I got to college I was thinking I had left home because I had spent a year
away. College wasn't an immediate leap into independence. Nevertheless it was a
structured reason to be somewhere away from home. Suddenly to be with 6,000
students, most of whom were about my age, was an incredible experience really, and
I feel very fortunate to have had that because it was such good fun. It was a time to
enjoy myself as well as studying. I think it's a good experience for anyone who's
young, to go away and have time to think about things, and think about their course,
and not be constantly in the grind that working can feel like. I developed so many
interests. I started climbing and that gave me the experience of being able to go
away with people of my own age. I really valued that whole extracurricula aspect of
student life. It can be quite a good way of becoming independent as well, learning to
do things in your spare time.
I do a lot with my life now – I'm quite an active person – but, looking back, that
college period of my life seems like a flurry of activity in my mind, a really colourful
period, active and energetic: the variety of experiences, the places I went, the people
I met, the number of people I was mixing with at the time, all the different courses I
did. I tried to live that college life when I first worked, and I did for a bit, but it was just
too exhausting – going away every weekend, doing different things, seeing all my old
friends, travelling around the country.
I haven't ever separated the different parts of my experience of Oxford Polytechnic.
I've never looked at the course alone, or the teaching methods alone, or the course
content, or my experience of the climbing club, or living in a shared house. I always
look at my experience at Oxford as a totality. For me it's just one big experience.
Whereas I suppose for the students coming in now, who are maybe living at home,
they won't necessarily see it in the same light as me. I just felt that I had such a rich,
exciting time. I can't really imagine having lived at home and gone to college or just
gone into lectures and not had any of that social thing entwined with it. The modular
course is incredibly sociable in itself. I didn't really know many people on my courses
but I knew them enough to have a conversation. I remember saying ‘Hello’ to so
many people in the street. If I was in the middle of town, or in a pub in the evening, I
was saying ‘Hello’ to someone every two and a half minutes, someone I knew from
some course or other. We knew an enormous number of people from the
organisation of that modular course and working in groups. That must be quite
unusual. It was amazing really. I remember coming back to Oxford after I'd left,
thinking, ‘How strange, there's nobody here that I know.’
The transience of that whole experience.
The Class of 1991
The bar of a public building in London early on a Thursday evening in October.
Toddlers are screaming nearby. A wind exhibition makes occasional whooshing
noises. Musical instruments are being tuned. People are gathering for the evening
The setting is surreal, and so is the story ... unless you were the one who lived
It is our second attempt at a meeting. The first was cancelled because we could
manage only an hour. ‘I think my story will take longer than that,’ he says on the
telephone. And he is correct. He is only just 26 but he has a long story.
At the start of our meeting, before the tape-recorder is introduced, we spend a while
chatting around our topic. He is keen to establish whether there was any specific
reason for choosing him. ‘No, no,’ is the reply. ‘We isolated the 1991 Cartography-
Geography intake and then chose one person at random from the nine male students
doing that subject combination that year.’
Satisfied that there is nothing afoot, he tells his story.
Choosing the Course
I've always had Geography in my family. My father did a surveying course which had
a geographical background and he came second out of the whole country in one of
his examinations. My brother's always been geographically based as well.
Throughout my school years I always enjoyed Geography and I was always good at
it. I got an A at GCSE and an A at A level, so it was a general progression to a
Geography degree course.
The Cartography was by accident more than anything. My brother and I went inter-
railing around Europe during the summer after leaving school and we were a bit late
back. The A level results were already out and I missed the boat on a few places. I
thought I had a place at Portsmouth doing Geography. I got the points they wanted
but they wanted a B and two Cs, and I got a C and a D and an A in Geography. I don't
know why they turned me down. In the end I applied through clearing. When I phoned
up Oxford Poly, I said, ‘I want to do double Geography’ and they said, ‘You can't do
that, you have to do Geography with another subject.’ And I think Cartography was the
only one left. I didn't even know what Cartography was. So they gave me a brief
explanation and I said, ‘Okay, I'll take it.’ That's how I got into Oxford.
The First Term
I had an absolute nightmare when I first got there. There's a lack of residential
places for students in Oxford, and I'd gone through clearing, so there was no chance
of getting a place in halls. I found it very hard to get a house at all. I had relations in
Swindon, so I commuted from there for the first couple of weeks and tried to sort out
a place. Then I met a chap called Barry and we managed to get some floor space in
one of the Warneford Hospital nurse's blocks, which wasn't all that bad. I remember I
was very stressed out at that stage. I wanted to leave and go home after the first
week, even though I was fairly independent anyway and had already lived on my own
at times in the previous couple of years.
Eventually I got a place in Warneford Hostel. I think it was an old part of the hospital.
There were 60-odd rooms in there, but it was very basic – stone floors and sinks that
had bits of sand coming out of the rusty water. It wasn't ideal but it was fine for me
and my neighbour was a good laugh. That was the start of it. I was settled then.
I think I did better in the first year than I did in the last two years. I was never a
model student. I had a social life as well. I enjoyed the course but I probably should
have attended more than I did. In the second year the Geography people put a
percentage of the coursework on attendance, which was good. It meant that people
had to turn up. There was a compulsory philosophical module, and the general
consensus was that it was difficult and boring. I don't think the attendance for that
module was great.
There was a module on natural disasters which was fairly good. I've always liked the
weather and you could pick your own topic and do your own mini-project. I enjoyed
that. There was a poster to do and I've always been fairly creative. That's why I
managed to do okay with the Cartography side.
I was always better at Physical Geography so I enjoyed those modules more. What
was good for me was that we had to do presentations on our own. Even the more
confident people used to get nervous beforehand. I remember one chap. Before he
did a presentation he used to get a little can of Budweiser, make a hole in it – what we
call ‘shotgun’ – and drink it really quickly. Then he was relaxed before his
presentation, although I don't know how his speech sounded. Everyone on the course
improved their presentational skills. Even some of the more nervous ones were better
at expressing themselves towards the end of the course. That certainly helped.
I think one of the main differences between the A level approach and the degree
approach was that for the degree you were meant to be grown-up enough, mature
enough, to get on with the work yourself. At A level they were quite strict, but on the
degree it was up to you to do the research. I think they probably went too much that
way in the degree course. I don't know whether that was just the course I did or
universities as a whole. My friends and I sometimes needed more of the ‘You've got
to get on with it’ approach. I always leave things to the last moment, but I do
concentrate and I'm very conscientious with my work. I would screw up drafts and be
angry with myself if I knew I hadn't performed how I could do.
The Cartography was very time-consuming. I'm not quite a perfectionist but I'm very
particular to detail, and we had to do quite a lot of maps by hand. I expect the course
is a lot more computer-orientated nowadays but the freehand maps took a lot of time.
I probably spent three-quarters of my working time at university on the Cartography,
and not so much on the Geography, but I probably didn't need as much time on the
Geography because I was naturally gifted in that area anyway.
The Geography staff? I was trying to think of them before I met you. It's funny
because in my memory I get mixed up between the Geography staff from university
and my A level teachers. If I sat down and thought about it I'm sure I'd remember
some. I remember the Cartography staff more. There was one Cartography lecturer
that I didn't get on well with. I don't think many people did.
I got a two-two which I've always classed as a socialite's degree. We used to call it a
Desmond Tutu. ‘What have you got?’ ‘I've got a Desmond.’ I know I could have
done a lot better. If I'd worked as hard at university as I do now then I would have
got a first. If you've done well enough to get to university, and you're academic
enough to do a degree, then you can get a first if you work hard enough. I don't think
it's a reflection of the teaching methods. I did most of my degree more-or-less on my
own anyway, although obviously I'd got to follow the curriculum. I didn't get to full
grips with the course because I didn't attend as much as I should have done, but I
still feel that I could have done a lot better than I did do. I should have got a two-one
really. I don't blame that on the teaching methods, I don't blame that on the course
or the curriculum. It's my own fault.
The field trip to Galway in Ireland was fairly interesting. Again, this is where the
course lacked – they were so vague in some of the approaches to the field trip.
There weren't enough boundaries on the subjects that we could be studying. On the
Ireland one, they said that we could do a project on any subject that we wanted. I
think a lot of people were very vague about what they were going to do. Our group
was a last-minute thing. I can't even remember what we did. Oh, yes, I remember.
In fact ours worked out quite well.
I know it's my fault in not concentrating as much as I should have done at university
but they could curb that by allocating people to groups so you don't stay in the same
groups all the time. That way people would encourage others, and those who didn't
concentrate as much would work harder. Usually it was ‘pick-your-own group’, so
there would be a group of five people who socialised together. If five people enjoy
going out and drinking together on a field trip, it's probably a recipe for disaster, so
you should split them into chosen groups. It's probably like going back to school, but
I think it helps.
I had a good group of friends who I'm still friendly with now. In fact I'm meeting one
tomorrow night. All could have done better than they did do. Some slipped away
and didn't even carry on with the courses. Some put their foot down and said, ‘Okay,
we're not coming out tonight because we need to work’ or whatever. I suppose the
average university student should work a little harder than they do.
We always got the work done but it was probably a last-minute thing. I remember
worrying about essays night after night. And the dissertation. I did a dissertation on
the Channel Tunnel, using mapping techniques. I spent two or three days in the
library down there but I think I sat up three nights running to get the thing finished.
I met a girl on my first day at college. I said hello to her at a disco and spoke to her
briefly. It wasn't until about three months after that that I met her again and got
together with her, and we lived with each other for the majority of university life. I
spent a lot of time with her. That fizzled out towards the end of the course.
I visited her in Wales during the summer holidays but most holidays I would go home
and work. I worked as a cleaner at Sainsbury's for quite a while. I think that's the
worst job I've ever had in my life. I started at six and sometimes didn't finish till ten.
Mopping floors and things like that. Then I worked at Rombaults, the coffee factory,
on the production lines with the filters coming down.
In Oxford I got a part-time job working at Cafe Coco on Cowley Road. Kitchen
porter. Basically I was washing up, but I did a few chef's duties, and I quite enjoyed
that. I met a few people there and got good food and a couple of drinks at the end of
the night, so that was good. I don't think that interrupted my work. It may have just
started to interfere with my course a little bit. I'd started to take on a few more shifts.
Some nights I'd think, ‘Crikey, I've got to get this essay done rather than work there
tonight.’ I worked at a couple of other places as well. I worked all the way through.
I was always a social person. As well as going out for drinks, we used to smoke
cannabis and we were into rave music and the rest of the scene. I don't know
whether it's a general thing but I reckon that at least 50 per cent of university
students smoked cannabis. I'm completely anti-cannabis now, partly to do with my
experiences and partly because I've grown out of it. It was the environment I was in
and the time of my life.
I suppose I always had a business mind and there were another couple of friends
who also smoked, so instead of someone buying one lot it made sense to buy more
and spread it between friends. To cut a long story short, I got caught with an amount
of cannabis. About an ounce and a half. Worth about £150 at the time.
I had been living with two mature students who I got on well with. Then one of them
moved out and another chap moved in. He was about 40 and a manic-depressive.
He wasn't part of the university life. Basically he phoned the police and told them I
was drug-dealing, which I suppose I was ... on a very small scale. I learned that he'd
contacted the police because I saw his diary a couple of days afterwards and it said,
I was in my bedroom at seven o'clock in the morning when the police smashed my
doors down and came running into my bedroom with sledge-hammers held virtually
to my head. I was naked and they were in full riot gear. They brought me out of bed,
arrested me and took me down to the police station. Then they said that they were
going to charge me for possession of cannabis and I had to have a court date.
At that stage I thought I had better have a solicitor. I had admitted to everything and I
knew that what I was doing was wrong, but I didn't think it was going to be as bad as
it was. I wasn't selling to children or anything like that. It was just with my friends.
But I would never ever condone it. I knew I was wrong, and I knew more than
anything that I'd let my family down.
There wasn't a lot of my degree course left – a few exams, which were obviously
stressful because I had things on my mind, and a few bits of coursework – and I
managed to finish it all. I had to appear in the magistrate's court and then I had to go
to the magistrate's court again. I missed my graduation because I had to go to court
on that day and I was quite upset about that.
By this time I had been to see the solicitor in his office in Oxford a couple of times,
and he'd explained to me that it was getting quite serious and I may be looking at a
custodial sentence. They had charged me with ‘possession’, ‘possession with intent
to supply’ and ‘supply’ and the case had been committed to the Crown Court. My
solicitor also told me that there was another student, a year younger than me, who'd
been caught in possession of a similar amount and had been given a custodial
sentence. I thought that was incredible at the time. Later on I realised that it wasn't.
When I first went to the police I was quite adamant that I didn't want the university to
know because I was afraid that I would be ejected from the college. I think I talked to
one of my lecturers about it later. My close friends knew about it and my girlfriend
was supportive and went to court with me. By this time, though, she was my ex-
girlfriend. Well, she still is my ex-girlfriend!
Being committed to Crown Court was a big step, so at this stage I told my mother.
She is the best mother in the world, very caring, and she always knows if something's
wrong. I was speaking to her on the phone one day and she just said, ‘What's
wrong, I know that something's wrong?’ I ended up telling her and obviously she was
very upset and I was very upset. She said, ‘Look, you've got to come home, even
though I don't condone that's gone on and all the rest of it I'll look after you and stand
by you.’ She was more understanding than I thought she was going to be.
I went back to Surrey. By this time I had finished my degree and my Mum said,
‘You've got to get yourself a job.’ So I got myself a job through a temping agency –
working for British Gas – and I started with a six-week training course. I did really
well. Out of 30 people on the training course, they decided to promote me, and that
was during the first six weeks.
My Crown Court date had been moved around quite a lot and it was coming up in
September. One Thursday night the Crown Court phoned up and said, ‘Your court
date's on Monday.’ The next day, the Friday, was the last day of the training course
at British Gas. I was due to start my new job, on a customer phonebank, on the
Monday, the same day as my Crown Court date. So I had to go in on the Friday and
tell the people I was working with that I might not turn up on the Monday. I had a
new girlfriend by this stage – I'd met her on the training course – and I had to tell her
all about it and tell her that I might not be back on the Monday.
On the Monday we went to Oxford. My stepfather came with me, my mother came
with me and my ex-girlfriend came with me. By this stage I'd got a barrister, but my
barrister was on a murder trial so I had to have another barrister. I met him that day
and briefly went through it all with him. I didn't have to say anything in court apart
from my name. The prosecution said their part. Then my barrister got up and said
his part. He was very good and I thought it looked good.
The judge was Lord Justice May, who is famous for sentencing Eric Cantona. He said,
‘It is very difficult to see a man of your status, with a degree a full-time job, and you're
polite and well-dressed ...’ and I thought ‘I've done okay here’ and then he said, ‘But
I've got no choice but to give you a custodial sentence.’ He sentenced me to nine
months for intent to supply – they'd dropped the possession charge – and nine months
for supply, with the two sentences to run concurrently. So, with that, two prison officers
took me down into a cell and I went straight to a high-security prison. I faced four and
a half months in that prison and I would say 50 per cent of them were murderers.
It was a bit of a shock at the time, but for some reason I'd come to the conclusion this
is what I would be faced with. I've always been a strong person and I don't think I
could have coped otherwise. The whole prison story is another story really. A lot
went on – riots, fights and all sorts of trouble – and there were a lot of sad people in
there. Ninety-nine per cent of them were professional criminals. They were going to
re-offend and they'd lost a lot of faith in the criminal justice system. I distinctly
remember one day when I was in prison, just before the main bit of trouble that I had.
I remember sitting in a cell and thinking to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?
I'm 21 years old, I've got a really good upbringing, a good education, I've got a
degree and I'm intelligent – what the hell am I doing here?’ It only dawned on me
then: ‘I'm in a man's prison.’ I had known very, very little about criminal life and
prison life. There's more and more things on television these days about the inside
of prison but it really doesn't show the true story. The majority of people are
completely ignorant about the dangers of breaking the law. Not only the moral side
of things, but the actual consequences of it.
For two and a half months I did well, and then I got into a lot of trouble. It was no
fault of my own but I had to put my hand up to it and I had to go to an adjudication,
which is a court in prison. I had to spend four days in solitary confinement. It was
the worst of the worst – an empty cell with double bars and nothing apart from a
metal-frame bed with a mattress and a pair of shorts. So that was hard. It starts
your mind thinking and it starts to send you a bit mad.
Then I was nearly killed. I was locked in a cell with four very dangerous prisoners
who beat me up fairly badly, and put knives to my throat. One of them was a triple-A
category prisoner who was in for 30 years for suffocating somebody to death and
disposing of the body through a haybinder. He was 6ft 5in and very intimidating and
had been two cells away from Frederick West at Winson Green Prison. That's the
sort of people. After that occurrence I had to move to a protection wing, which has
perspex all around it so that no-one can throw anything or spit or abuse you. It's full
of sexual offenders and paedophiles. I couldn't go back to the normal wing but there
was no way I could stay there either because I was in danger of being sexually
assaulted. I had a go at one of the officers to get put in solitary confinement. I
refused to go back on either the protection wing or the normal wing. I thought that on
the protection wing I'd get raped and on the normal wing I'd get murdered.
Eventually they found me a place in another prison, which was a great relief to me. I
was double-shackled in de-lock things and driven halfway across the country in a
taxi. This was all a great strain on my mother at the time. It was happening over
New Year and for a week she didn't know what was going on. I'd made one call to
my solicitor to say that I needed help, but my mother didn't know whether I was dead
or alive, or what prison I was in. I was in for four and a half months in total. I should
have been in for more really, because you normally get days added on for being
arrested while in prison, but I think they realised what was going on. The officers
knew that I wasn't the normal sort of prisoner.
When I first came out of prison I was thinking about trying to write my own book on
the experience. I think it would make a good book. I could provide a lot more
graphic details on the whole experience. But I would never glorify what I did. I'm
ashamed of what happened and would never condone it. I've always been a
Christian person – Christened and confirmed – and it was a moral dilemma for me.
Cannabis is accepted within the student community but I'm now completely against
all drugs. People who say that cannabis should be legalised are talking absolute
rubbish, because cannabis does affect you. It gives you short-term paranoia, even if
you only smoke it once. If you smoke it over a long period, then it will give you
longer-term paranoia and make you very agitated and lethargic, although I don't
know how much has been proven. I would certainly disagree with legalising it.
When I left prison I was still in a bit of a state. Yet when my friends asked, ‘Are you
okay?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I'm fine,’ because I didn't think it had affected me at all. It
wasn't until a year later that I realised that it had affected me quite a lot. I had six
months of terrible nightmares about the middle period.
I managed to get a job two weeks after I got out of prison – at a computer
cartography firm. About three weeks before I was released, my mother brought me
the job advertisement when she was on a visit. That was a good break. On my
application form I didn't say that I'd just come out of prison, but I told the manager on
my first day: ‘Here's the form with all my personal details, and at the bottom you can
see that I've got a criminal record. I want you to know that before you take me on
because I don't want you to find out about it and give me the sack, and it's a criminal
offence not to notify you.’ He tore the form up, gave me another and said, ‘Fill out
another one, just don't put it on there because most of us here have smoked
cannabis at some stage.’
I'd always tried to avoid computer modules when I was at university. I'd hated
computers and always wrote out my essays in full. Now I realised that if I was going to
do this for a career I would have to get to know computers. I picked it up better than I
thought I would. I worked there for a year, and then I got another good break. One of
my college friends was working as a junior cartographic editor at a publishers. He
said, ‘I'm leaving, do you want to apply for the job?’ So I applied for the job and got it.
It was a five grand pay rise, which was good, and a much more prestigious company.
I fitted in very well and got on really well with all the staff. I was editing, designing
and drawing on Macintosh computers, and I got my name in a few books for doing
most of the maps. That gave me another boost. After about a year there I still had a
few debts from college. The money was better than before but I was working in
London and living in a part of Surrey which wasn't cheap. Another of my friends was
into sales, and a couple of other people at the publishers were in sales and they
didn't work as hard as me and were earning a lot more money. So I thought, ‘Well, I
can talk the hind legs off a donkey and I'm fairly confident, I'll go for sales.’ After a
year and a bit with the publisher I left for this job as an IT consultant. I've learned a
great deal about customer relations, talking to customers, the IT industry and sales.
I've been there for about a year and a half now. It is very stressful but if you work
hard and stick at it and do well then the money's really good.
What Use is a Degree?
When I was in prison they offered a number of courses, and obviously I was keen to
keep myself occupied. Going round the room, they said to people, ‘Are you
interested in doing some courses?’ and people said things like, ‘I wouldn't mind
doing a bit of English.’ Then they came round to me and said, ‘Have you done any
courses?’ I said, ‘Well, I've got a degree actually.’ And the look on their faces. In a
way though that worked against me. People thought, ‘He's a posh boy, what's he
doing in here?’
Going to university and going away from home is a good laugh and you're meeting
people and extending your education. It's a big learning experience and part of that
is learning independence and maturity. But there are eighteen-year-olds at university
who are not ready. So I think there should be tighter controls at university. But at the
age of eighteen you are adults and if that's what the law says ...
If you go in as a mature student you're missing that part of growing and learning and
maturing as a person at the age of eighteen or nineteen, learning the independence
of leaving home. If there were too many older students, it would defeat from the
object of what university is about. Being on your own and out on a limb is part of
what the university experience should be about, but I think you need tighter controls
in case people do start to run off the rails a bit, as happened with me. In one
circumstance, I think I missed the first four weeks of my lectures and it wasn't even
noticed. That was my own decision but I think there has to be tighter controls.
Oxford is such a small city that there's a big integration between townies, as we
called them, and student life. I think it is important to mix with town people, as well
as students, but I think some students get wrapped up in the ‘townie’ element of
things and they get drawn away from the reasons why they're at university. I know
several people who did that and they chucked in their courses and went to work full-
time in Oxford – as a shop assistant or something – because that's what their new
friends were doing.
The computer side of my degree was relevant. I suppose my degree has led me all
the way through. It has been fairly influential in a funny sort of way. I went into
cartography and worked round to the computer side of things and then into what I'm
doing now. I'm sure that the presentational skills at college in the Geography helped
me with interviews.
I know it's not very nice doing presentations, and I know for a fact that some people
didn't take certain modules because of that, but I learned presentation skills and
communication skills as I went along. That certainly helped me.
One reason why I wanted to speak to you was to show that you can go into a degree,
you can do a degree, you can have a pretty bad kickback, and yet you can still come
back and have the chance to be successful enough. I hope I have proved that. I
think one or two of my friends are in admiration of me for being able to do that.
It has changed me as a person. It's made me look at things in a different light. It has
made me grow a lot. Even though it was a very bad experience I probably wouldn't
change much of it. Certain aspects I would change – like the time I was nearly
murdered – but I think it has made me a better person, even though I don't agree with
the criminal system.
I enjoyed my university years and I would never change any of that either. People
who don't go to university miss out on a great deal. Not just the ‘having-a-laugh’ bit
but a great deal of growing up as a person and a great deal of education. The three
years at university is a very important part of your life. It does channel you through. I
think it's a very important structure, not just academically but for your whole
personality. Certain things that happen in those three years will affect you for the
rest of your life.
Lisa Jacklin grew up in Hull and attended a comprehensive school. She went to college
as a mature student and earned an upper second in Anthropology and Geography.
She was 29 at time of interview, which takes place at the kitchen-table of a terraced
house in a small town 15 miles south of Oxford. A welcome breeze comes gently
through the skylight. It is late-August and the weather is warm.
During the interview Lisa occasionally gets up and does things to tidy the house.
There is good reason for this. It is late on a Friday afternoon and she and her
husband are expecting ten friends for the weekend. Most of the visitors are people
they knew while they were at college.
Choosing the Course
I was 22 when I started my degree. It counts as a mature student. I had been to
drama school and worked in a theatre, and I had travelled a lot. I've always travelled
I went to Indonesia when I was nineteen. Operation Raleigh had been asked to stop
all their work in Indonesia because of an accident on a tiny island called Suram but
one of the Operation Raleigh people organised his own expedition. I saw an advert
and said, ‘Yes, I'll go.’ And I went for six months. It was conservation work in the
National Parks – building bridges and restoring camps that had been destroyed in a
big storm. It was great. The best thing I've ever done in my life. That was the first
thing I did and then I went across the Sahara in an old Land Rover with some friends.
When I was in Indonesia I met some anthropologists who were doing an amazing
study of pigs and I thought that was the coolest thing I'd ever heard of in my life.
When I came back I was supposed to be going into drama school but I said, ‘I may
go and do a degree in Anthropology’ and my parents were kind of ‘Whoaaaa, slow
down, you're going to drama school, sort it out.’ So I went to drama school and I
applied to go to Oxford Brookes as soon as I finished at drama school. Then I
deferred it for a year because I was offered a job in the theatre that I couldn't turn
down because of the money.
After about nine months I didn't get any more work, so that was when I decided to
take up my place. I was living in London at the time and I decided that Oxford was a
nice enough distance from London. It wasn't anything to do with that particular
Anthropology course. It was to do with personal circumstances at the time. I wanted
to be in close contact with London.
I just decided that I wanted to go to college. I think now, if I'd had the opportunity to
think about what I wanted to do, in terms of different types of degrees, then I think I
would have chosen a Modular Course anyway. At the time I didn't have that kind of
help and advice in my life because I came in from a completely different direction to
Just before I went to college I spent three months on a kibbutz in Israel. The Gulf War
had happened in the February so it was a brilliant time to be in Israel. Everybody
wanted you to like Israel and be happy there and not be scared. I've been back since
and that feeling's gone. I don't feel as welcome there now. At that time, though, the
Israelis were so surprised that people had dared to come that they made a fuss of us.
Everybody was so welcoming and so nice. After Israel, we went down to Egypt for a
month and went on a boat on the Nile and everything else. Really fantastic.
I started off doing Anthropology and Travel & Tourism but I didn't like Travel &
Tourism so I swapped to Geography. Geography was my only relevant A level.
I liked the way the course worked with the modules. That really suited me. I felt all
the way through that I was in total control of what I was doing. As regards the
Geography course, bits of it I loved and bits of it I didn't like. I think you get that with
any degree. I felt that some of the optional modules were far more appealing than
the compulsory ones, so the choice aspect struck me as the best thing.
I really preferred the Anthropology to the Geography. But only the content. In
Anthropology it was very much lectures and seminars, but you did group work and
presentations like you did in Geography. On the Anthropology course there were
more opportunities to do fieldwork. You could go to the open zoo in Holland and look
at primates and there were lots of visits to places like the Museum of Mankind in
London. The fieldtrips didn't strike me as being a really huge thing in Geography. I
only went on one fieldtrip, which was a compulsory one to Ireland. If you didn't go
you couldn't graduate.
Pete Keene was the only lecturer that I knew well. We tended to have PhD and MA
students doing a lot of the close contact work – or it seemed to be like that – and
then you had the lecturers in charge of the whole module. I didn't really have any
close contact with the lecturers themselves.
I liked some aspects of the course that were quite philosophical. There was a guy – I
can't remember his name – who did a module called Remaking Cities, which was all
about planning and how you would see cities in the future. It's not something I would
go back to and it's not something I would have thought of doing at the time but I really
enjoyed doing it. That was really philosophical. As long as you could back up what
you were saying, you could say anything. I liked that about some of the course but I
also found bits of it far too vague. You were just left to get on with it from day one
and then afterwards people came back to you and said, ‘Oh, you should have done
this’ or ‘You should have done that’ but you never had any lead to follow. It was all
totally on your own, which was probably the bit that I didn't like. In Anthropology you
were given far more ideas to follow.
We did lots and lots of team exercises. We did one where you were set an
environmental problem: choose three contrasting sites of the River Thames between
Iffley Lock and Godstow Lock, and auction them off for their environmental value.
Then you got marked as a team. I had good teams. If you didn't have good teams it
was a nightmare because you lost marks and that could have been really bad, but I
always seemed to be okay. A couple of times I thought, ‘Well, you're not really
pulling your weight.’ But I think most people would say the same thing, and you got
to know who you could get on with and work with.
I knew a couple of people who did Anthropology and Geography in the year above
me, and sometimes we had to work in teams of two second-year students and two
third-years or something like that. Or sometimes you had to have a man in your
team (if you were girls) and vice versa. A lot of people would think, ‘I'll go with those,
I know they are going to work really, really hard.’ At the end you had to do an
evaluation of who did what, and whether you worked as a team, and that was always
worth five per cent of the final mark – how truthful you were in your evaluations. And
sometimes you had to be interviewed on the basis of it. Yeah, you had to be truthful
and if you weren't someone found you out.
We did lots of presentations. That was something I'd done before, but I think other
people would say that that's probably the one thing about the Geography course that
they got the most out of. Presentations weren't a huge problem to me because I'd
worked in the theatre, and I carried on my theatre work all the way through my
degree, but I saw my friends go through real angst having to stand up in front of 200
people. There were loads of people on the Geography modules, so you always knew
somebody on each module you did, which was good, whereas in Anthropology there
were 22 in each year.
It was all very varied. We did displays, folios of articles we'd found, factual essays,
storywriting, anything. A friend of mine had done Geography at Manchester and her
course was very much like my Anthropology – lecture, seminar and essay, five or ten
per cent of the marks on coursework and then an exam at the end of the year. I
wouldn't have liked that.
I'd done a lot beforehand and I felt that most of the people, particularly on the
Geography course, were straight out of school and were very different to me. And
there's a big public-school/private-school thing at Oxford. You'd got a lot of people
who'd been to private school and I'd been to the comprehensive.
I was in halls in the first year. That was where I met my husband – on the third day.
I had various circles of friends in my student life. I had lots of different sides to what I
was doing and I met people in each different aspect. I was president of the drama
society and I skied for the Poly Ski team and I knew people on the Anthropology
course and in the halls of residence. I had a great time. I still have a huge number of
friends from college.
My family funded everything but I still worked. If I hadn't worked I would have had
less money and it would also have put a burden on my parents and my grandparents.
I worked in a hat shop most of the time that I was at college and I did other things.
During the summer holidays I worked at the place where they make plastic milk
bottles in Kidlington. That was very exciting!
My music tastes are terribly catholic and weird. I'm into strange things. My husband
was a semi-professional musician and I got into things that he was into. We were in
Oxford when lots of bands were starting, and I knew a lot of people then who have
since become quite famous.
I'd come from theatre where everything was a bit weird. I had to normalise myself to
fit into Oxford, because everything was so Sloaney. Everybody was terribly, terribly
Sloaney. I was with people in halls who weren't and that's probably why they've
remained my friends. If I'd gone to a different hall and met different people I probably
wouldn't have been accepted in any way, because I went in there with spiky hair,
wearing solid black, listening to weird music and talking about weird things. Now I'm
really fashion-conscious but I wasn't then. I'd been on a kibbutz just before I went
there so I was more into sandals and shorts.
There was an General Election one year  and we couldn't vote. It was during
the Easter holidays, and you either had to get your vote transferred to home or you
had to vote by proxy, so nobody could vote. We had a really good friend, Bob Hoyle,
who was a Labour councillor, and I remember him trying to sort everybody out.
My time at college seemed to miss major political moments. Margaret Thatcher
resigned just before I went and the Gulf War had happened, and then John Major
was voted back in during my first year. So it was that grey period where nothing
really happened and there was no excitement. All the things to do with the poll-tax
had happened before and everything about new Labour has happened since, so it
wasn't a big political time.
I don't think students are that political now. I am, and my husband is, but he's a lot
older than me. He was 29 when he went to college. We'd get on our soap-boxes
and tell the younger students, ‘You should believe in this.’ My first friends at college
were all eighteen. They were straight out of school or had had one year out to go to
France and improve their French. I'd been on an expedition and world poverty was
my interest, so I was always aggressive towards people who said, ‘I can't be
bothered to vote.’ I'd say, ‘You don't understand, a vote is not a privilege, it's a right,
you've got to go and do it.’ I was one of the most political people in my year.
Sarah Brierley was the president of the Students Union then and we had a huge
argument in my third year about the anti-Nazi League being refused the right to
speak in the Students Union. I voted against the motion. I said, ‘You're being
undemocratic, you can't stop people having the right to speak.’ The Students Union
thought I was some kind of Fascist. That was probably my only moment of political
uprising when I was at college.
A lot of people I met at Oxford Brookes were from very upper-middle-class
backgrounds, and they had gone there because it was Oxford, not because it was
Oxford Brookes. That's something that needs looking at, because to me at that time
there was just the right balance between the different types of people. But I think it
could easily tip towards the ones who can afford it, especially with the new grant
situation. The ones who can afford it will go to Oxford and the ones who can't afford it,
or those who can only just scrape together the money, won't be going to places like
Oxford. And I think that's really sad, because it's such a brilliant place to go to college.
I'd been to school in Hull, which is the end of everywhere, and I'd worked in London,
which is huge, whereas Oxford is this contained place with an entire history.
Everybody you know lives within two square miles of you. You're in this wonderful
environment where it's all student but you can step out of it and look at something
else if you want to. We were encouraged to look at how Oxford is without the
students. Take the students away, what is there? It was at the time when Rover
Works was closing down and they were flattening that bit of Cowley.
I think Oxford Brookes has to be really careful if they are to carry on getting an even
mix of students. It would be really sad to see that go, especially on a course like
Geography. If you lost people like me who had gone to comprehensives and come
from northern backgrounds and done things before they went there, then you'd lose a
wealth of experience that is so important to Geography. If you're going to
concentrate on people straight out of school who've never done much and have
everything paid for them, well ...
I teach Geography at a secondary school, but what I teach at A level is nothing to do
with what I did in my degree. The Geography course at Oxford Poly is great – you
get to do things that you would probably never do again and you can see Geography
from totally different points of view – but as a teacher it's not very relevant to the
national curriculum. That wasn't a problem, because I did it all again in teacher
training. I carried on the process of learning.
I did my PGCE [Postgraduate Certificate in Education] as soon as I left, and then I
taught in Brixton [London] for two years. Last Christmas we moved, and I work in
Berkshire in a school in the middle of the countryside, which is totally different. And
we still travel. We've just come back from Peru. Travelling has always been a key
thing in my life. Anthropology and Geography appealed to me, and everything fits.
And teaching Geography fits in. When I'm travelling I give people potted lectures on
landforms and get terribly boring.
I haven't done any drama for a year or so but I still have a lot to do with the theatre
and I go to the theatre a lot. I do work with friends, and a lot of my friends are now
professional actors and actresses.
I'm happy teaching but I don't see myself staying in teaching for 30 years and then
retiring. That's definitely not me. I'm thinking about doing an MA. It would probably
be something to do with the treatment of refugees and the refugee problem. The job
I'm doing now and the ideas behind doing an MA are the only times I've really
thought about what I was going to do next. The other things have just happened.
I've stayed in touch with a few people who did Geography. Kate works in retail and
fashion, and my other friend Joanna is doing very well. She was from the Caribbean
and she went back there and we've been out there to stay with them. I don't earn as
much as them but I'm a teacher so I have to accept that.
One of my friends who did Anthropology and Psychology is now an actress and is
doing really well. One male friend is starting an MA in Social Work this year. We've
all gone into different things, but I'm the only one that has a job that is related to
Geography. I wouldn't have said at the time that I was going to be the one who did it.
It just happened.
What Use is a Degree?
We did lots of presentations and I'm a teacher, and teaching is all about presenting.
That's the one thing I did learn that I've used the most. Not so much the confidence
to stand up and do it, but the way to present a point to make other people understand
it. Especially in my A level teaching.
One of my A level kids is going to Oxford Brookes to do the Geography degree and
I've warned him that he's going to have to stand up and talk and go off and do
projects but he doesn't believe me. He thinks I'm trying to scare him. The 18-year-
olds these days would be the same as the 18-year-olds I saw on the degree.
Everybody who was slightly older, even if it was only two or three years, handled it
far better than the ‘straight-out-of-school’.
I think the 18-year-olds will go in there and be terrified. At A level you have to do
field work but you've got so much help and you don't have to stand up and say
anything. You don't have to express your own opinions really. You have to learn it
and regurgitate it. You only had to do that on maybe two or three of the modules that
I did. Most of them wanted a huge amount of your work. That suited me but it
doesn't suit everyone. It doesn't suit many 18-year-olds.
I probably use the teaching methods I saw in the Geography department but those
methods are now being used in PGCE courses. My PGCE course was done in the
same way. I did my PGCE at Goldsmiths. In the same way that Oxford Brookes
Geography is seen as a forerunner of these kind of courses, so Goldsmiths is seen
as a forerunner for education. If you go into Goldsmiths you do everything with the
same kind of psychology behind it that we did at Brookes. Things like role play. I do
a lot of role play in my teaching. I think that's a theatre thing. People think I'm mad
doing that at school.
The success of group work depends on the level. For example, at GCSE, they can
do group coursework and if they don't collect the information correctly then the rest of
the group can miss out on an A. That is really important at that level, so I think you
have to be very careful. It's great to get them to do group work in years seven, eight
and nine. You say, ‘You're going to work as a group’ and they all get scared. They
think, ‘Oh, we've got to work or Miss won't give us an A otherwise.’ But I think you
have to be very careful. And it was done well at Oxford Brookes. You knew if there
was a real problem that something could be done about it. Group work is really
important in education now, but its assessment has got to be justifiable. Everything
is like that in education at the moment. You've got to justify everything you do. You
can't just say, ‘It's a really good idea.’ Someone will say, ‘Yeah, but if you look at
section 4.4b it tells you that this should be assessed individually ...’
The environmental line is probably the aspect of the course that's affected me the
strongest. That's probably the one thing I teach now that isn't really required. I tell
them, ‘You should not be driving that car, if you can go by bike then do it.’ And my
18-year-olds sit there and say, ‘Yeah, we've just passed our test, Miss, I don't think
so.’ I do a lot of environmental things but my Mum is like that, too, so it's not
necessarily the Geography course.
If there's a more environmental way to do something then I'll do it and won't think
about it, unless there's a huge cost involved. If it's a question of doing something
unenvironmental just to save time, then I'll take longer and go for the environmental
way. But I think you have to be a certain kind of person to do that. I don't think the
Oxford Brookes Geography course could take too much credit.
They did a module called Gaia which was all about how we are here to look after the
earth. We're just the caretakers and if we don't look after it we'll be destroying it for
future generations and future species. That whole idea has always appealed to me,
and I now teach it a bit with my A level students. It's one of those things that you either
accept and explore or you say, ‘No, this isn't me.’ That was one of the really good
courses, but hardly anybody does it. I think only about 15 of us did it in the three years
we could have done it. And it was brilliant. Martin Somebody. A very tall guy with a
big, bushy beard and glasses. And he was great because you couldn't make any
sweeping statements – you had to describe everything down to the tiniest point.
There was one piece of coursework where you were given a newspaper article about
buying secondhand things and recycled things, and in the essay they wanted you to
be as wild as possible in your views, so you could really say, ‘No, I totally disagree’ or
you could go for it in a big way. And that was probably the one piece of work we did
that got most people saying, ‘No, I disagree.’ The rest of them you could just mooch
along being middle-of-the-road if you wanted.
My close friend Kate, who was on the course with me, is not at all like me in any of
these ways. She was willing to accept things if people explained why and she
believed in what they were saying. I think that was because she was 18 and came
from Devon and had never been anywhere. I saw the course affecting her and now
she'll argue with me about it or she'll argue alongside me in a way that she wouldn't
have done before, and I think it was probably the Geography course that got her
I think a lot of my A level kids won't go on to college now because they can't afford it.
Sarah Brierley from Oxford Brookes came to give a talk and she said, ‘In four years
time we'll be talking about £10,000 a year for a student because you've got fees,
accommodation, food, books and everything else.’ And what parent can afford
£10,000 a year for three or four or five years? When she said £10,000, I said, ‘No
way,’ but we sat down and worked it out and it's getting on that way now – three and
a half grand for accommodation, £1,000 minimum fees, then you've got to eat, get
home, buy books, take buses. And a place like Oxford can't support many students
on part-time jobs, can it?
Oxford Brookes has an image amongst the kids. They're all a bit like ‘Well, Oxford
Brookes is a good university but we could go to Hatfield and it wouldn't be so stuffy.’
They are far more willing to go to places that were once considered not as good. We
know the history associated with them – some places weren't even polytechnics – but
to young people now that's the past. I find that quite worrying.
I went to Oxford and it was a great course and I got a two-one and I got more out of it
than I wanted to. I expected to go in there and get a pass degree or something.
People say, ‘Was it worth going?’ and I say, ‘It was so worth going.’ And now my A
level students say, ‘Is it really worth going?’ And you can't explain it to them. You
can't say, ‘Yes, because you meet brilliant people from all over the country who you
would never had met before, people who have had wonderful experiences that
you've never had, and you'll get to do things that you'll never do again and there's all
that sport and entertainment.’
I would have given up skiing years before, but I skied for three years there, so I've
got three years of skiing back. You could do anything. You could say, ‘I've always
wanted to scuba-dive.’ And that's more important to me than the course that you are
doing. I'm sorry that's not what you want to hear, is it?
I had been to drama school, which was a really incestuous, inward-looking
experience. At that same time as I was at drama school, all my friends were having
a great time in universities and polytechnics in weird places – Lancaster and
Cambridge and Canterbury and wherever – and I was in an environment where I
didn't get a chance to go and learn to scuba-dive and I didn't get to meet people who
were doing French and Scandinavian Studies. I just met all these people who
wanted to work in the theatre, live in the theatre, speak theatre, eat theatre and do
nothing else. And that was one of the reasons I went, and I didn't care where I went,
because I wanted more than a drama school could give me. I wanted that whole
package of people and experiences and place.
I would say now that if you can't decide what you want to do, have three or four years
out. Work. Travel. Do anything. In four years time, by the time you are 21 or 22,
you'll realise what it is that you desperately have the desire to learn and then you will
go and do it. And you'll value every second of the time you have there. You'll go to
college and people will say, ‘Come and do this,’ and in your past life you'd have
thought ‘That's a bit kinky’ but now you go and try it and you come back and say,
‘Yeah, it was good fun.’
Alex Matthews, 25, graduated with a lower second in Geography and History. He
has a mild but distinctive accent that betrays his Newcastle origins. On the
telephone, and in person, he is charming and accommodating.
He works in Manchester, lives near Bury and visits his girlfriend in Leicester at
weekends. The interview takes place in a semi-detached house in a village just
outside Bury. It is early on a July evening and he has just returned from work. He is
pleased to be involved and is actively interested in the project.
Choosing the Course
You had to select five universities and four polytechnics, and Oxford was my first
choice in polytechnics. I got eight out of nine offers and chose Oxford Polytechnic. I
had heard that their Geography department was one of the best.
I chose Geography mainly because it was my strongest subject at school. I couldn't
put my finger on exactly what I wanted to do, so I thought I might as well stick to what
I'm strongest at and that was Geography and History. I did a joint degree, and you
had to do seven modules per subject and a total of 18 modules. I did an extra
module in Psychology, and one in Politics, which helped the History aspect of my
degree, but the others I did in Geography, mainly because I preferred it to the History
perspective. The lecturers were very good, very helpful, and they certainly gave us a
lot of projects, and we travelled the country, whereas the History was a lot more staid
and you weren't looking for new aspects.
Day one was a bit daunting. Luckily, one of my school-friends, who had been in the
same class as me and who I knew very well, got a place in Oxford as well. He was in
the same halls as me, so we travelled down together on day one. That made it
easier because we always had each other to rely on. He was in a different block
from me so he made friends in his block and I made friends in my block, and the two
blocks linked up. I knew two other people who had got places at Oxford in the same
year and I bumped into them occasionally.
There were a number of fresher events. Most of them were based on the pubs in the
town. I was in Cheney Hall, which is quite close to the campus, so that was fine in
terms of travelling. There is another major campus at Wheatley, about five miles
away. They used to put on buses, at about half-hour intervals, but obviously it was
inconvenient. You couldn't go there and back whenever you wanted.
A couple of people dropped out. I don't know their real reasons for dropping out, but
I think one of the girls didn't really want to be at university. She didn't want to be
employed, so she took the degree option as an easier route, but when she realised it
was quite hard work she decided on employment.
Geography was different from traditional courses but I wouldn't say it was harder
work – I had to put a lot of effort into the projects we did for the History degree. We
had basic lectures, which were very similar to History and Psychology, but we were
also taken out of the class. Some of the material that they used was more hands-on,
as it were, and that certainly provoked more interest. We did one night class where
we were involved with people who weren't actually part of the Oxford universities, so
that was quite good. I remember going out one night on my bike about 11 o'clock for
one project because we were measuring the temperature around the Oxford region
to prove that Oxford itself did generate and retain heat compared with the
countryside. So at 11 o'clock one night we were out on bikes with thermometers and
wind gauges etc. That was totally different from sitting in the library going through
History books. It was more hands-on.
The History side had a lot of reading involved. A lot of reading was involved in the
Geography, too, but you could actually go out and see what they meant in the books,
especially with regards to environmental aspects. When I was there, we did a lot of
projects on pollution – the greenhouse effect etc – and based them around Oxford.
There was a strong environmental aspect even then.
I always remember the presentations. A lot of different presentations in Geography.
Really good. We did them a lot of different ways. We did role plays, we did video
presentations and we did one where we dressed for the presentation. I think we
were Arabs, or something like that, so we dressed in sheets for the presentation. I
would say the History side was much more staid and much more as you would
expect. The Geography degree, and my dissertation, gave me a wider scope to do
what I wanted to do.
My dissertation was on the effects of a football ground on the local environment and
community. I visited Leicester University and they gave me a lot of help there. I
went to a conference in Leicester and met the organiser of the UEFA 96 Euro
Championships and the Chairman of the Football Supporters Association and a few
other people. It was really good. Football is one of the loves of my life and it allowed
me to tie it in to the course. I wanted to base it on Newcastle United fans, but at the
time Sunderland were considering moving ground because of the environmental
aspects so I based it on Sunderland. A lot of the clubs were moving out of town to
new developments – some have actually done it now – and I was looking at the effect
on the residents in terms of litter, noise, traffic, etc.
They said the dissertation had to be around 10,000 words, and at school we had been
writing 500-word essays and thinking we had written the Bible. Ten thousand words
seemed really daunting. I did it on the PC, and the word count came to 15,000 words,
so I had to cut it down. George Revill was a great help for me with my dissertation
because he was also a keen football fan. I went to him and said, ‘Would you be
prepared to be my mentor for the next couple of years?’ and he was delighted to do
that, so he was a great help. I always remember the staff as being approachable.
Derek Elsom was a good help as well.
I did a module in Psychology which I found very interesting. In some ways I wish I'd
done Geography and Psychology, but it might have been just one good module. It
was on social behaviour. It examined where people sit – when they are having a
confrontation with somebody, when they are working with somebody and when it's a
stranger. We did all sorts of things like that and it's very interesting because I see it
now at work.
Student life was excellent. It was very different for me, originating from Newcastle,
because coming down to Oxford was the first time I had lived away from home for a
length of time. I went in at the deep end, going to Oxford, because it was 265 miles
away from Newcastle. There was no way to turn round and go back. I made a lot of
friends, and there was a lot of social activities. People say they are the best years of
your life and I certainly wouldn't disagree with that. Oxford is a city that caters for
students. I mean, 25% of the population are students. Also, the city is fairly small. If
you were out with a group of people, it was very likely that you would bump into other
groups of people that you knew, so that helped to add to the feeling of ease. It was
like that from day one.
I lived in hall for a year. I don't think they really encouraged you to live in halls for
much longer because they haven't got a lot of space. Also, they had a lot of
overseas student to cater for. Then I lived in a house in Divinity Road, not far away
from the University, for two years. There were six of us in the house. Two of us
stayed in the house for two years and four new people come in.
I got involved with the football club and became one of the captains. The football tied
me up on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, so I wasn't going to look for other
societies, but there was a lot of other societies catering for likes and needs. Oxford is
well known for its sport. I think the rowing club was the strongest club when I was there.
My social life was heavily based around the football so we'd go out after training on
the Monday night. We played football on a Wednesday, so we'd go out after that and
we usually went out on a Thursday as well and then at the weekend. I was in a
position where I only had six hours of lectures a week at certain times and it freed me
up to go and visit some of my friends from school who were at other universities,
especially the ones in London because it was only a hour away on the Oxford Tube.
Plus, the bus fare was very reasonable as well. Even if you missed a couple of
lectures it wasn't the end of the world. You could catch up, especially if you knew
other people who were going. You could copy their notes. A lot of the Geography
modules were part project-based and part exam-based which was good. You went
into exams knowing what percentage you needed to attain. That was a great help.
Some of the Geography modules were 100% project-based, so there wasn't as great
an emphasis on exams.
It was the beginning of the dance era. I've always liked music and they had a lot of
concerts at the university, but I never ever thought ‘I'll go.’ I liked the music but I
wasn't caught up in the music scene, as it were. A lot of people were much keener
on music than me. I remember in the last year 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' came
out. There's probably a load of other films that I could reel off. TV programmes? I
remember the likes of Spender and Quantum Leap. A lot of people stayed in to
watch the soaps and they came out after Coronation Street and Neighbours and
Home & Away. I find when you get to work you are much more into a routine and
you find programmes that you like and you watch them, but at university it was a lot
more flexible. You always had people knocking at the door to see if you were coming
out, so you never really got into a definite routine.
I remember the death of John Smith, the Labour leader, and Freddie Mercury died
while I was at university. I remember the death of Robert Maxwell as well because
we were in Oxford when Robert Maxwell died. It was in my first year. He had the
publishing company based in Headington and the university bought his house
[Headington Hill Hall]. I remember his death because the press were all outside and
there were helicopters around.
I always remember the May Day Ball, which was an all-night occasion. It was very
good because you paid for your ticket and that included everything, all the drinks etc.
The first year it took place in absolutely terrible monsoon conditions – I wish I'd worn
wellies – but the next two years they were very nice nights. There's a big ball scene
as well in Oxford. There was a Summer Ball as well and a couple of others and we
always went along to those.
Luckily I got a full grant because my mother and father are divorced, but it was
difficult. I got a lot of financial support off my father. My full grant was £2,265 per
year and we were paying £190 per month each on the house and we had to pay that
for 12 months. There are not enough houses for students in Oxford so landlords can
charge what they want. Even when we were away from the university for eight or
nine weeks during the summer months, we were still having to pay £190 per month
or we would have lost the house. I did get jobs in the summer. I got student loans as
well. I had to take them out just to stay afloat. Yes, money was tight. I remember it
being tight but everybody got through. I don't remember anybody having to drop out
because of financial reasons. I think it puts a lot of financial strain on your parents,
doesn't it? And I think the situation is getting worse now that people have got to pay.
I was the first one in my family to go to university, but I had been to a private school
in Newcastle so I think my father was used to having to pay for my education. It
made the flow a little lighter, as it were, but it is still a lot of money.
I went back to Newcastle but there wasn't a lot of jobs around at that time. A few of
my Oxford friends, who I knew through the football, were moving to Nottingham so I
moved down with them. I didn't have a job. I just moved to Nottingham. Then I got a
job with the Co-operative Bank in the Bullion Centre in Nottingham. It wasn't a
graduate job, it was just a foot in the door really.
I got the job in November , but I hadn't actively looked for a job until the
September. Going down to Nottingham forced my hand. I had to find a job because
there was no way to live off benefits away from home. If you live at home, I think it
makes it easier for you to stay on the dole for longer. Plus, when you've been away
at university for three years and you go back home, you lose some of your
Once you're in, the bank has a lot of internal vacancies, and I got a job at Derby
Business Centre, which is one of the business centres catering for existing corporate
customers and bringing in new business. Then that merged with the East Midlands
Business Centre so I was based in Nottingham again. Then in December 1997, a job
came up at the Head Office in Manchester as a Credit Analyst, so I applied for that
and was successful and moved up here in December.
I am now a Credit Analyst for the Co-operative Bank, dealing in corporate lending.
When propositions come to the bank from businesses, if the bank decides they can
provide lending for them, the proposals will come up to us and we will analyse all the
information sectors. The Geography degree got me into the bank – the analysing
part and being able to present data and put projects together, and looking at trends.
Doing presentations has helped a great deal. The actual Geography aspect of it
hasn't helped that much, but the Co-operative Bank is an ethical bank and we get a
lot of environmental businesses come to us, so when we get something like that then
I can add a little bit more knowledge to it. Unfortunately I cannot use my Geography
degree, but I was certainly happy doing the degree and I don't regret ever doing it.
I'm just finding my feet at the minute. I'm lodging with one of my friends from the
East Midlands Business Centre who got a job in Salford with the bank in June 1997.
When I got this job I phoned him. My plans are fairly flexible. I'm just 25 now, you
see, so time is still on my side. I am happy to stay with the bank, but my girlfriend is
in Leicester. I'm just leaving myself flexible at the moment.
What Use is a Degree?
It improved my communication skills no end and my interpersonal skills as a whole.
It has certainly helped a great deal with regard to presentations etc. It helps to work
as part of a team. You know how to get round the issues if there's disagreement and
how to divide up work and who's going to take what and who's going to specialise in
something because they are good at it. That wasn't something they specifically told
us about. From what I recall, it was more ‘Get in your groups and sort out what you
need to this done by this day’ and so you went off and did it. It meant meeting
outside the lectures and actually taking responsibility and if you let yourself down
then you let everybody else down.
Having to stand on your own two feet has made me more confident and more
independent, such as moving down to Nottingham. I think from the point of view of
renting accommodation, having changed once, I am more willing to move location
now. The bank, my employer, has had a lot of impact on my life since I've moved
away. I did want to go into finance when I'd finished my degree. I am now doing
another degree through the bank – Monetary and Financial Systems at Salford
University. It's a BSc degree and it's concentrating on the legalities behind lending
etc. It's just that I need to specialise really. You can either do distance-learning or
night classes, and I am doing the distance-learning at the minute. You've got one
thick book and you go through it and at the end of each chapter there are projects for
you to tackle and to check you are on the right lines. My employer is funding this
degree. I'm specialising in what I've decided to do, but without the Geography
degree I wouldn't have been in that position. It's imperative that people get degrees
if they are looking for further advancement. With regards to my Geography degree, I
would never have any regrets about doing the Geography. I wouldn't have changed
the place I went to or the course I did.
I'm very, very pleased that I did it and I've met a lot of very good people out of it.
The Class of 1994
Michelle King is unique in our sample in that she achieved a first-class degree (in
Geography and Planning). Her thoroughness is evident on the telephone when she
asks if she can prepare for the interview. She offers to look over her university notes,
even though her books and files are still in the same boxes as when she emptied the
house in Oxford. But an interview for “What Use is a Degree?” is not a test. We
want to see what comes up without the interviewee revising.
Now we are in the cathedral city of Exeter. It is mid-July. The insurance office has a
meeting-room where we can sit comfortably and drink tea. The only interference is
from the seagulls outside.
‘I imagine it's a little like an exam,’ she says, as the tape-recorders are being set up.
‘You think you don't know anything but once you get started ...’
Choosing the Course
I think mine was the last year for UCCA and PCAS forms. You had nine choices,
and you filled in the nine just because you had nine to fill in. People aren't so lucky
now – they have four choices. It came to the final day for handing in my forms and I
didn't have anybody to put at the top of my PCAS list, so Brookes went down. That
was it. Nothing more. I didn't know anything about the place at all.
I didn't do as well in my A levels as I thought I was going to, and I uncannily got the
exact grades that Brookes had offered. I thought, ‘Right, I'm going there.’ I wanted
everything sorted so I wouldn't have to worry about it while I was away. I took a year
out after A levels and went to stay with my uncle in Hong Kong for the middle six
months. I had a couple of months back home and then I went to university.
The only time I'd been to Oxford was for an Oxford Brookes visit day. When I was
shown around Birmingham, on the same kind of induction, I felt a bit on edge, but
when I went to Oxford it was entirely different. All the worries went. The Oxford
environment wasn't so different to the Exeter area, where I had lived all my life. And
I'd already been to a big college, Exeter College, for my sixth form, so I was used to
something quite big. I wasn't worried about going. I was looking forward to it.
I hadn't learned anything for a year, and I remember thinking, ‘I'll have forgotten how
to write, what am I going to do?’ I remember we had to decide when we were going
on our first field trip – to Caer Llan. ‘Oh, no, we don't know anybody.’ And you have
piles of workbooks, thinking, ‘Oh, no, tons of stuff to do in the first few weeks.’ But it
was nice to see things in small chunks in the workbooks, because I think that was
where my A levels had failed me – it was just too much in one big lump. It was a nice
relief to see snippets of ‘This is worth ten marks’. I think the first month or so was
just getting to know people more than the actual content.
The Caer Llan field-trip was about the third or fourth week. You've made your friends
in the hall, and already it was quite insular, and you get pulled out of that because the
people who live near you aren't the people who do Geography. I'm glad we weren't
forced down the coal-mine. I'd been there before when I was at secondary school
and I was forced down and it wasn't a nice experience.
I remember bits of what we did at Caer Llan. I remember some very complicated
game. I think George Revill was trying to prove how difficult something was, and he
certainly did because our group came last. It's the evenings that you remember, with
everybody getting drunk. I thought the idea of the two walks, and the different way
you see things, was really clever. It makes you feel a bit daft, but it leads you into the
way you ought to be thinking. You say, ‘Oh, yes, perhaps I am being led up the
garden path a bit. I'll know the next time.’
The reason I got higher grades for Planning was because I had done Geography,
and the insight from Geography made my Planning work better than people who
were doing just Planning. My bog-standard knowledge of Planning wasn't as good
as theirs but my insight was better. I was not necessarily taking things at face value.
Certain things would cross over from Geography to Planning. I would remember
something I'd done in Geography and could say why that was influencing Planning.
It made me get better grades and come out with something better, which made it
worthwhile, although we got angry at the Geography department at times.
There were specific things in Geography that I found it so difficult to get my head
round. I would sit down for hours and think, ‘I know I'm not stupid, why can I not get
my head round this?’ Particularly one second-year module I was doing – Nature
Environment and the Greening of Western Society. It was a big double module run by
David Pepper, and it was the most complicated thing that I have ever come across in
my entire life. Again the work was in small chunks, but those small chunks were taking
me a lot longer than things that were worth 30 or 40 per cent for other modules. It was
frustrating. I did that module in my second year, and people were asking, ‘Do I do it in
my third year?’ and I told them the problems I had, knowing that they'd be wanting
dissertation time in their third year. You think in terms of per cent and marks. You
think, ‘If I put x amount in, how much am I going to get out for my time?’
Some of the things we did were a bit odd. The last thing we did before we left – and
what a way to finish – was a walk along the Thames where we had to pretend to think
in the way that somebody else would think. This was in Environmental Philosophy and
we were in small groups. We opened our envelope – ‘you are Formists.’ You only got
a basic description of what these people's beliefs happened to be. Formists! We were
Formists. We didn't have a clue. We had to research these people and then try to
adopt the way that they might think while walking for four miles along the river.
Another group had to think how a follower of Ghandi would think, which was quite good
because it's a bit more familiar. But we didn't have a clue what was right and what was
wrong. Formists? We spent the whole time saying, ‘What the hell are we supposed to
be doing here?’ There were so many ways we could have gone about it. We were so
worried that we were wrong. Three of us were borderline grades and needed to do
really well, and we hadn't the foggiest of how well we were doing for the amount of
effort. So it was all a bit fretful in the end.
One of my favourite Geography modules was Remaking Cities with John Gold. That
was the part of Geography that I had always been interested in. I suppose the
elements of Geography that I studied before university were the elements of
Planning. They had more of an urban geographical background. So I wasn't
necessarily losing commitment towards Geography at university, it was just a
different Geography path – towards Planning.
I don't think of myself as a geographer, but I don't think of myself as a planner either.
I don't know whether that's something personal, or whether it's something that comes
of people doing joint honours degrees. They are sitting on the fence a bit. I'm not
altogether sure that it's a bad thing. Maybe later, when I have a focus on what I
really want to do, I'll be pleased that I haven't committed myself to being something
and I haven't got in a rut.
I suppose Planning in the earlier stages was a bit more lecture-based than Geography,
but in general I think it was a good mix in both – reports, groups, presentations, things
like that. I was a student representative for the Planning department for a couple of
years, and there were a couple of things that the Geography department did that the
Planning department didn't. If the Planning department had taken them on, I think the
students would have been a bit more satisfied.
One simple thing was with the dissertation – in Geography you have a record of
when you go to see your tutor and you put that with your dissertation. It makes you
feel you've got some sort of relationship and it is comforting to have it on paper. If
you are a borderline case the tutor can say, ‘This person did come and see me, I
couldn't see it coming.’ That kind of thing. Or someone can go to that tutor and say,
‘We know that you saw them for ten hours, how did they manage to end up with
this?’ Whereas with the Planning department there's nothing like that.
And the other thing that Geography did was to have the group-work mark altered for
individuals. Say you have four people in a group and one person doesn't pull their
weight, the group can give individuals a score between minus two and plus two. As
long as your group comes out with a zero, the tutors will work out the individual mark
according to ‘effort equals marks’. If everybody has done an equal amount of work
then it's all zeroes and everybody gets the same mark. I think that works, and I think
that is realistic. When you get a job people won't accept freeloaders. Sometimes a
freeloader will accept that they are a freeloader and won't mind going ten marks less
than somebody who has worked really hard and needs the extra. That was quite
positive and it's so simple.
If there was a bit of an argument and the group couldn't sort it out, I think you could
go to someone on the staff and say, ‘Look this is what we think’ and they'd help you
to come out with something satisfactory at the end. Sometimes you had contracts –
‘I agree to do this’ – as part of a project. If you hadn't had contracts, someone might
say, ‘I shan't bother, we'll all get the same mark anyway.’
I enjoyed certain group work but then it was frustrating at times. But it is something
that you need to do. I do pity the people who have been at university and all they've
done is write essays and sit and read from books, because what they have at the end
is really limiting. I feel that I've got some sort of skill of working in teams and pulling my
weight. By the third year, you are more practised with presentations and the audience
is more familiar, which helps. And you know what people want to hear. The staff. Or
peers if it's peer assessment. It's not necessarily that the content is better. You tell
them what they want to hear, then they ask a question and you tell them again.
We did peer assessment quite a lot of the time. I think sometimes it was an individual
who would mark a group, and sometimes, if it was all group presentations, your group
would give another group a mark. They had the same list of questions that you had.
Did they cover this point? Five out of ten. Did they cover that point? Six out of ten.
And I think that worked. I don't think the marks that the peers gave were ever
phenomenally different from the staff's marks. A bit harsher if anything. I don't think it
was to do with ‘My friend's in that group’. It got past that. It was always the more
entertaining students – the good actors and actresses – who did relatively well.
Town-mouse or country-mouse? I'm most definitely a country-mouse. Whatever
happens, I don't think you can change that. Because it's where you feel comfortable.
Although I was in Hong Kong before I started my degree, in the end I felt
uncomfortable in that environment. That would be another one of my choices – I'm not
going to live in a town. I don't think that's anything to do with studying Geography. I
suppose if Geography had influenced me in any way it would have pushed me in the
other direction – towards Urban Geography. Also, there is a way that you have to live
if you live in the country. I can drive but I don't – I'm not a car-owner. My boyfriend
has a car but he drives as little as possible and cycles a lot. Although we are country-
orientated, with the way we think about the environment we would be better off living in
a town. But I certainly wouldn't be entirely happy in a town.
One of my problems is that I'm not a terribly sympathetic person. I suppose I'm a
British ‘pull yourself together, man’ kind of person. Litter is one of my bugbears –
people throwing things out of cars. And people getting in a car to drive half a mile.
That's not just an environmental point: somebody who is able-bodied gets in a car to
drive half a mile and somebody who has never been able to walk would love to be
able to walk half an mile. That level of frustration just seems to get bigger and bigger
unfortunately. I'd like to be able to do a job where I could try to influence people so
they could think more carefully about things. You think, ‘Teaching?’ ‘No, thanks.’
A couple of years ago I had a summer placement job with the Council, at the Road
Safety Unit. I loved every minute of it but their main campaign at the time was
slowing drivers down and causing less accidents. They get x amount of money for
three years, and they are just flogging a dead horse really. It's frustrating enough
when you're not doing anything about it, but how much more frustrating can it feel
when you are trying to do something about it and you're still getting nowhere? I'd
have to find a job where I'm not preaching like a do-gooder. My dissertation was
about young people in rural areas and how their access to facilities affected the sort
of lives that they had. From the things you read, it's very difficult for the people who
are trying to help young people – youth workers and teachers. They are coming up
against problems and interference, and the kids are still hanging around bus-shelters.
It's quite frustrating again.
I lived in hall the first year, with friends the second year and in lodgings the third year.
A bit of everything. I never worked in jobs during term-time but I worked every
holiday apart from when I was doing my dissertation at Easter of the final year. You
have a job, cut down the overdraft a bit, go back to university, the overdraft grows a
bit more, another job, cut it back again ...
I don't think I would have done the coursework if I had done a term-time job. I don't
think I would have balanced it. I think I would have been pulled in different directions.
You have to keep focused. At the end I think I had an overdraft of £1,000 and one
loan, and I scrimped and saved and paid it all back by February 1998, so I'm not
feeling too bad about things.
I think Brookes may be a bit of an anomaly. I always thought that ‘Mummy and
Daddy’ would always get a lot of students out of their situations – they could always
get something from their parents. I felt that with the Geography students a lot more
than I did with the Planning students. It might just attract those sort of people.
Compared with my friends at other universities, who all seemed in the same boat, the
Brookes students had quite a lot of disposable income.
I was ready to leave anyway. I thought, ‘That's my time finished.’ I suppose I
thought that more because my sister started at university when I finished.
Graduation was a disappointment in the way it was organised. It was just ‘turn up for
two hours, another poster, get the picture’. I don't think they can do it any other way,
but none of the tutors turn up or anything like that. It's unfortunate that they've got to
pack thousands of people in. You imagine your graduation to be the end: ‘Thanks
very much, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.’ But when you do finish you don't go round
and say goodbye to people.
When I left, not having a job wasn't an option. It wasn't financially viable. I didn't
have time to look for something that was suitable, something that I really wanted –
partly because I didn't know what I really wanted. I walked into an agency on a
Friday and they said, ‘We've got something for you, start on Monday.’ And I started
working as a cashier in a bank. By the following February I'd had enough. After the
hundredth million time you've said ‘How would you like your cash?’ you've just about
I said to the agency, ‘Can you find me something else?’ They found me Sun Life
within a couple of days. I've been here for five months. My contract here will come
to an end in a couple of weeks. As yet, neither myself nor my boss here know
whether I can stay or not, because it's out of his hands. I'm waiting on someone
higher up in Sun Life to say ‘Yes, there is a job for the foreseeable future.’ It's not a
taxing job. It's just basic administration. If they do take me, they may want me to
take exams, like other people here have done. I'll have to wait and see. I'm not
worried if I don't get a permanent job because it's not the be-all and end-all.
My boyfriend is doing his diploma year at Brookes in Planning, so basically it was ‘sit
it out for a year, wait until he finishes’, which he has done now. Now it is ‘wait for him
to get a job’ because he has been a lot more specific about what he wants to do. He
has an idea and he's older, so it will probably be easier for him to get a job and then
we can relocate wherever he is and then we can think seriously about the future. But
at the moment I live week by week. I find that a bit unfortunate, but I know it will turn
out alright eventually. And I'm only young.
I started looking for environmental jobs but that petered out, again because of not
knowing where I'm going to be. I'd like to be in a place and say ‘Right, I'm going to
be here for two years or whatever.’ I don't want to set my heart on something and
then not be able to do it. I'd rather wait until I'm a bit more stable.
Because I knew that this year was going to be in limbo anyway, it was going to be my
‘try and think very hard about what you want to do’ year. Now this year's been and
gone and I'm none the wiser about what I want to do. The more you try and think
about what you want to do the more jobs you find out that there are to do. When
you're little it's policeman, nurse, doctor, that sort of thing, and now it's ‘Oh, my, how
does anybody even start?’ Do people just fall into things rather than have any
specific idea of what they want to do? One of the new chaps here asked me, ‘Did
you really want to do this?’ I'm finding that a really difficult question to ask myself,
because I don't really want to end up somewhere in five or ten years, thinking, ‘How
did I end up here?’ I think that's such a waste, and it's not what I want, but I don't
think anybody can make that decision for you – just yourself – and it might take me
until I'm thirty. Or even longer. I was sent a questionnaire after six months. I filled it
in but it was like ‘Ask me tomorrow, when I've grown up a bit.’
You get into a job in the summer and it's just like any other summer job you've had,
and then the summer ends and the job doesn't. You muddle along. Weeks go by
and time begins to run away. Although you moan about work, I've always liked
having somewhere to go and having something to do. Even if it's just answering
telephones, it's something to do, nine to five, from Monday to Friday. I don't think I
would enjoy not having a job.
You can't make a decision if you don't know where you are going to be. Obviously
I've limited myself by saying, ‘I'm making that commitment to my boyfriend’ so I can't
do what I want, although obviously I am doing what I want because I've made that
decision, but locationally I don't know where I might end up.
Who knows where we go from here?
What Use is a Degree?
I was the only one of my school friends who went to a new university. The others
went to places like Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield. They all did Arts degrees.
Their university experience was a lot more traditional. I don't think I would have done
half as well as I did if I had had finals. I think I've come out with more as a whole,
with the transferable skills, but I certainly haven't come out with any more focus. I
don't know whether that's because Arts graduates generally find it difficult to know
where they are going. I think three of my friends are falling into teaching and I don't
want to do that. It crossed my mind but it crossed it very quickly.
For me I think it was more about curriculum content and transferable skills. I don't
feel as if the friendships were that important. It may sound completely selfish but I
was at university to get something at the end and I worked in that way. I had three
years to prove something. I worked at my degree like it was a job. Nine to five. I
never worked in the evening and rarely at the weekend. Students don't generally
work like that. A lot of people there worked till two or three o'clock in the morning. I
can't empathise with those people at all, because it's not the way I work. After the
first year I knuckled down and did my work, because it wasn't going to last for ever
and I wanted something good at the end. I was friends with a couple of people who I
was genuinely interested in, but I wouldn't be friends with people on a superficial
level. I'd rather have two or three good friends. That's the way I worked, whereas
other people would be friends with everybody. I met my boyfriend there, although
ironically he does live locally here [near Exeter]. Ironically ... and conveniently.
The idea of tracing and interviewing 18 Geography graduates was enough to excite
all the best travel fantasies: would there be a trip to Australia? or the south of France
in August? or an island off the coast of ...
The second interview, in mid-July, temporarily quashes such fantasies. It takes place
where the project started – a seminar room in the Geography Department at Oxford
Brookes University. He is now 23 and a graduate in Environmental Sciences and
Geography (upper second). He still lives in his home town, six miles from Oxford,
and is relaxed about the interview.
‘I have no problem with you using a tape-recorder,’ he says. ‘In Geography we had
our presentations video-recorded. It's a bit daunting at first but you end up forgetting
about the camera. It's like going to the dentist – you don't enjoy it but you know it's
good for you – and you can put it on your CV as one of your transferable skills.’
A Year Out
After my A levels I took a year out and worked in a garden-centre. I think working in
retail is another world. It's almost like they want to take over your life with the
working conditions and the hours. The work wasn't bad because I was outside and
not stuck in the store, but it's not something that I want to go back to.
Most people I knew went straight from A levels to university, or straight from A levels
into a career. I'd recommend a year out – to see what it's like in the real world. I
think there's a danger that you can spend your time from six to 21 – or even longer if
you do dentistry or medicine – never having known what it is like to earn money and
have the pressures of bills. It can come as a shock to a lot of people when they
leave and suddenly think, ‘This is it, I've got to work nine to five, Monday to Friday,
until I'm sixty-five.’
I worked in the garden-centre from October to August and that gave me the chance
to save money to get me through university. It's very difficult to survive these days.
Even a full grant is nothing really. Loans are available, but I don't think you can
borrow enough money to make life comfortable. Most people do part-time work.
One person in particular, I think her degree suffered. She had to work, work, work, to
make ends meet. She was ‘temping’. She would be asked to do work and given no
warning, and she would say, ‘Yes, I'll do that for a week.’ And it meant that she
couldn't go to lectures and she had to rush her coursework. She did that through a
big proportion of her third year. Luckily, she had done well in her second year, and
that tided her over, but I think she could have done better if she wasn't working. But
you can't say that to somebody, because if they don't work they don't stay at
university. She was a foreign student so she didn't get any maintenance grant and
she wasn't eligible for any kind of loan. She didn't live expensively. But if you take a
year out you can have more money to start with.
I can remember the first term in the first year. We did three or four presentations
within ten weeks in the Geography modules. Every two or three weeks it was
presentation, presentation, presentation. There were people doing Geography at the
time who suddenly dropped Geography and went off to do another field, really
because they didn't like doing presentations.
I think it sorts out the wood from the bark in that first term: ‘This is what Geography is
going to be like for three years, this is what you'll have to cope with.’ The staff know
that some people are uncomfortable at doing presentations in that first term. I don't
think they mark on the usual criteria – don't look at your notes, look at the audience,
keep it interesting, etc – because they know it's a novel experience for people. It
would be fairly soul-destroying if you were nervous about it and then found that you
had got a bad mark.
Suddenly, at university, essay-writing involves reading other people's work and
referencing it correctly, something that was never done at A level. Another thing I
found strange was that you were suddenly calling lecturers by their first name. It was
a lot more informal than school. On the first field trip, to Caer Llan, we ended up
drinking with the staff. It's a very strange thing to be doing. You think, ‘I'm drinking
with teachers here’ but by the end of the weekend you certainly know them very well.
You've heard of students saying, ‘I work better under pressure’? Well, I don't mind
working under pressure but I think I work a lot better when I'm not under pressure.
That's how I approached my work as a student. A lot of my friends would do
assignments the night before, whereas I would get them out of the way and take my
time. I've never been one to leave things to the last minute.
This university leans heavily towards working in groups and it definitely escalated
during my time. We were doing more and more group work. I can see why – it's a
transferable skill and it's very good for you as a future employee – but I don't think it's
administered very well. The people leading the group tend to be those who are
prepared to do the work to get a good mark, but you also get people who are prepared
to sit there and wait to be dished out work and then they go on to make a mediocre job
of it. And of course the whole group suffers as a result. The staff started contractual
systems whereby if you think one of the people has not pulled their weight then you
can say they are not going to get as many marks. It works okay in the first year, when
you don't know anybody you are working with, but once you've made friends with
people, it's difficult to say, ‘You're lazy, I'm not going to give you any marks.’ It can get
difficult. There's a lot of ‘avoiding your friends’ when group work is being allocated.
You try to work with people who you know will pull their weight.
I have one very good friend, a lovely person, who is one of these people who says, ‘I
work better under pressure, I'll leave my work till the last minute.’ With group work, if
you've got presentations, you've always got to rehearse. You've got to get it done
early, so you feel confident when you're presenting it to x number of people and it
looks polished and sounds coherent. We did one module with David Pepper.
Environmental Politics. Everybody went off to do their own thing, but this girl had to
be told what to do. Then she said that she'd gone off to do the work but couldn't find
anything. It ended with myself and another friend going to the library, looking on the
Internet, looking at journals, and doing the work for her. On the day of the
presentation we dumped it on her and said, ‘Just read that. If you're asked questions
on it, we'll try to back you up.’ Fortunately it went okay. It didn't go as well as it could
have done, but we managed to blag our way through. That was the worst example of
group work I can think of.
There's an example that comes to mind when I thought we did very well. It was a
presentation on Weather, Climate and Society, one of Derek Elsom's modules. There
was myself, a girl and a chap I knew well enough to say ‘hello’ to. We did a
presentation about weather modification. We had to choose the format, so we did it as
a debate. One person was for weather modification, another person was the sceptic,
and I was the person in the middle who ran it. We had to practise but there also had to
be a certain amount of adlibbing because we didn't want it to sound artificial. It went
down very well. It wasn't the best mark we ever got, but I think it was the best one we
did because everybody pulled their weight. Everybody knew from the start exactly
what they had to do and where the debate would be going, and it just jelled. Group
work was never a problem as long as everyone pulled their weight.
We did report-writing ‘in the style of’. On a field trip to Ireland in the second year we
had to write the report as if it was an article for a Geography journal. One thing that
seems strange is that they still rely on poster presentations. A lot of students say,
‘Why do posters? We're at degree level and we're still doing posters.’ I can see why
it's done because it's a way to convey information, and it gives a department
something to stick on the walls, but a lot of students feel that they are a bit too grown
up to do it. They say, ‘Why should I be doing this, it's the sort of stuff I did in primary
school?’ The classic retort is to say, ‘Would you rather do it as a presentation?’
I would say you should do more field trips. It's a good way of consolidating
information that you learn within the classroom. Sometimes it's difficult to understand
an environmental process until you see it out in the field. And field trips are a social
thing as well. You get to interact with students in a relaxed atmosphere, and you
work with staff in a way that you don't normally. You normally see members of staff
in a classroom, fairly well dressed, but the field is the real domain for a lot of staff.
It's where they do their research. It was inspirational to see Peter Keene in the field
because he could interpret landscape in a way that was totally above my head. He
could pick up things from his years of experience of studying his chosen field. It got
a lot of students more interested in the work than they would have been otherwise.
They just sat there in the classroom, but to see it out there was quite breathtaking.
We did a module with Peter Keene called Coastal Geomorphology. We went to the
North Devon coast. The project we did was a video trail from Buck's Mills to
Westward Ho!. We looked at the typical coastal processes that operate and used the
video for examples, looking at the landscape and saying, ‘This is happening here.’
On the second day Peter Keene took us around Hartland Quay and showed us
coastal landforms. If you couldn't see what was going on, he could explain it in a way
that you knew exactly what he was talking about. Other field trips with Peter Keene
were exactly the same. It's important for students to see that. I would say there
should have been more of that within Geography, certainly Physical Geography, but
then I'm coming from a biased point because I think there should have been more
Physical Geography anyway.
I stayed living at home [six miles from Oxford]. Three reasons really: (a) my father's
self-employed and I could still help him with his business; (b) I knew it was a lot
cheaper; and (c) I wanted to study Physical Geography and Environmental Sciences
(which tends to embrace most of the attributes of Physical Geography anyway) and
there was a course at Brookes that I thought I would enjoy. I get on well with my
parents anyway, so I had no problem staying at home. I've been with them all my life
and they know me well. They know to trust me. But my friends couldn't understand
how my parents could give me the freedom that they did. A lot of my friends from
boarding-school background had parents who were working in another country and
they never saw them.
I think that more than half the students at Brookes are local. Some people gave me
some stick – ‘Ah, staying at home, you don't experience student life, blah, blah, blah’
– but I think student life is what you make of it. I had no problem making a lot of
friends and having a good time with them, even though I didn't live within the city. It
certainly saved me a lot of money. I had to spend more on petrol but it was no
hassle travelling in. My parents said, ‘Well, if you haven't got much of an income, we
won't make you pay rent.’ The difference between the grants and loans for those
staying at home and those going away to university is negligible. I think it's £300 or
£400 now. There is no way that it costs only £400 more to live away from home. I
had one friend who lived in Swindon. He stayed there the first year and then he
moved to Oxford because he thought he was missing out on something. The only
thing he was missing out on was a huge overdraft. It cost him a fortune because it's
not cheap living anywhere in Oxford.
Within Environmental Sciences, we studied environment from an objective point of
view. There was no emotional attachment. We didn't get bogged down with all the
emotions involved with destroying rainforests and destroying lakes and rivers. It was
looked at as pure science: ‘Processes in one part of the system cause this to happen
in another part of the system; this is why it happens; this is the outcome.’ It
complemented well with Geography because geographers are taught not to ignore
subjective feelings. In most of the compulsory Geography modules, there was an
element of your opinion in the coursework: ‘What did you want to see? What do you
think of what's happening? How would you go about ameliorating the situation?’ I
think most people who do Environmental Sciences and Geography find that the two
combine quite well. Environmental Sciences gives you an understanding of the
process from a purely scientific viewpoint, and that allows you to make judgments a
lot easier within Geography. I think that sometimes Geography is worried about
delving into the depths of scientific understanding.
Those who did Geography with Environmental Sciences tended to look at the
environment from a practical point of view. The people who studied Geography with
Anthropology or Sociology didn't look at it from a practical point of view because they
didn't understand the processes and they weren't taught to look at it objectively. A
couple of modules within Geography encourage that way of thinking. David Pepper
is a realistic environmentalist. He acknowledges the problems within the
environment, but he also acknowledges the pressures within commerce and industry.
That comes through in his teaching. But a lot of students didn't pick that up, and got
very emotional about the environment without knowing the facts.
One girl in particular was a stereotypical Green. She went on the Newbury by-pass
protest marches and she tried to get us all to go down. She said, ‘On, no, it's very
peaceful, you'll have a good time.’ Then that Sunday it was on the news that they
were all getting into fights. It's a bit sad that everybody preferred to sit on their bums
and do nothing and let somebody else get on with it. A couple of other people were
‘let's save the environment’ but people weren't really interested in active
environmental management like Newbury. A couple of people asked her questions
afterwards, but there wasn't much sympathy. A lot of people around here knew what
Newbury was like with traffic, so they weren't really keen to see the by-pass stopped,
but I think most people admired her for doing something when they weren't prepared
to do anything themselves. I thought, ‘That's fine if she wants to do that, but it's not
something I want to do.’
When I was doing A levels I think it was very easy to fall into the trap of ‘You've got to
save the planet.’ Even though the Geography field encouraged your emotions to
come through in your work, I've probably become more cynical towards the
environment. I've maybe taken more notice of Environmental Sciences, which is
looking at it in a practical way of solving environmental problems. Sure, we put a lot
of CO2 in the air, but is that really going to stop happening? Can you say to
somebody, ‘You can't do that any more’?
All that led me to start a Masters Degree in Environment, Management &
Technology. The course acknowledged that we have all these environmental
problems, but was looking at the best way to tackle them – from an environmental
point of view and from a commercial point of view. The course was at the interface
between environmental problems and economics. Industry is there to make money
and they only care about the environment once it stops them making money. I know
it's a fairly harsh way of looking at it. I'm sure some people in industry do genuinely
worry, but that tends to be what happens, and that's really what I picked out of it
whilst doing my BSc. That was really the way I wanted to go forward. I wanted to
work within the theme of the environment, but to do it in a way that (a) would find me
a job at the end of it and (b) I could stand back from it from an objective point of view
and look at the best practical way to manage the environment. I think that's really
what I picked out in my three years of being here.
You will always stay in touch with really close friends. One girl is travelling around
the world but I still know exactly what she's up to because she sends postcards and I
e-mail her. But then you've got all sorts of acquaintances, people who are doing the
same degree as you, who you're friendly with but you don't necessarily go out for a
drink with or go to the movies. You lose touch and drift away. Maybe you bump into
them a year later in Oxford. ‘How's it going?’ ‘We must arrange to do something
sometime.’ But you never do. That's a bit sad but it happens all the time.
A lot of people seemed to go off without much idea about what they wanted to do.
My girlfriend studied Environmental Sciences and Chemistry here and she went off to
become a chartered accountant. Her father was an accountant, so there was an
obvious link. Another one of my friends worked with a computer firm because
computers were his interest. You pick up a lot more IT skills now – it is encouraged
university-wide – and he really focussed his attention that way. One girl I knew, who
did Geography and Environmental Sciences, went to Australia for nine months. I
think she's coming back to Britain this summer but she's used the opportunity to
travel the world. She lived in Kenya anyway and enjoyed travelling around. Another
friend of mine stayed in Oxford and did a secretarial course. I think she's hoping to
work for the water industry because that's what she researched for her dissertation
and she had done modules like Hydrology, Water Chemistry and Water Biology.
My family gave me a bit of hassle when I finished my degree. I said I wanted to carry
on and do a Masters and they thought I didn't want to get a job. But there wasn't a
job for me to get. I think a lot of problems came because my girlfriend got a job in
accountancy, and she got it about a year before she graduated because that's how
they recruit accountants. My parents saw her with a job and they saw me finishing
my degree and not doing anything. They said, ‘Do you know what you want to do?’ I
said, ‘I probably want to do a Masters degree and carry on learning.’ They said, ‘You
can't be a student all your life.’ Then a part-time job came along here, and I thought I
would do my Masters part-time and work part-time, and they were happy with that. I
think they wanted to see me in work, but it's very difficult to graduate in an
environmental field and then work in the environment. There are so few job
opportunities. And doing an MSc was a good way to be better qualified within a
relevant aspect of the environment. Then it's a lot easier to go off and find work
within the industry. That's where I saw myself.
It's been a complicated year. I graduated in July 1997 and I knew the staff here were
setting up a Physical Geography field. They were looking for a full-time technician to
work in Psychology and Physical Geography, but they said they would be prepared
to split the job if they couldn't find somebody who could fulfil both requirements. I
waited for a month and then they advertised separately for two part-timers. I applied
for the Physical Geography job, had the interview and got it. I left in July as a student
and came back as a member of staff in September. It was really strange to suddenly
have the keys for all these rooms that I'd never been in. Yeah, it was great.
I worked for a couple of months, getting into the job and really enjoying it, and then I
had a few medical problems. I had a lymphoma and had to have chemotherapy. It
knocked me out for six months really and I had to stop the Masters degree. I couldn't
praise the department enough. I had only just started this job and I thought, ‘They
are not going to want to know,’ but they basically said, ‘Just go away, get better,
come back and we'll keep paying you, there's no pressure, you just do what you want
to do.’ They've been really good. They let me come in for odd days, just to keep me
ticking over mentally. There were weeks when I was having the chemotherapy that I
had no energy to do anything. I would have liked to have worked more than I could,
but there was a problem with possible infections, because the steroids affect your
immune system. The doctors said, ‘What's your job?’ and I said, ‘Lab technician.’
They said, ‘What does that involve?’ And they nearly had a heart attack when I said,
‘I work with soil and water samples.’ They said, ‘No, you can't do that, not with all the
bugs and things in soil and water.’ I ended up working on the computers, not really
getting involved in the lab. And then I started work properly in April 1998 and that
coincided with when the students had more lab-based coursework. I'm in remission
now and they are keeping an eye on me. I go back for scans and tests every so
often. The consultant feels around my neck and makes sure nothing is going wrong.
I feel as though I've missed out a large portion of my first year at work, but I really
enjoy what I'm doing here. I enjoy working with students. I enjoy working in an
academic environment. Sure, there are deadlines to conform to here, but I find it a
lot more easy-going than working in industry. I enjoy the working environment and I
probably find that as important as any wage they could offer me. Your sanity within
I was appointed as a Physical Geography laboratory technician, so my work really is
orientated to the laboratory cycle. I work principally with students, helping them in
the laboratory with their projects in their third term. Then I help with supervision on
field trips. The Geography department encourage me to not just be somebody who
supervises in the lab and says, ‘Don't chew gum, put your lab coat on.’ They
encourage me to have a more active role with the students, to help them learn, help
them with the teaching, and that's something I enjoy doing, and I'm grateful to them
for letting me do that. Then there's the mundane stuff. We have IT technicians, but if
somebody can't get computer software to work, they'll maybe nab me and see if I can
help them out. I make sure our satellite data is properly archived with copies.
There's the good side of being a laboratory technician, working with students, and
there's the dogsbody stuff.
What Use is a Degree?
As each day goes by you forget more and more of what you learned. The work I did
in the first and second years is almost a blur now. I've got the notes to look through
as back-up, so you can say that you've got that to take away, but I don't think that's
true for most people because, when they leave university, certainly if they go into a
unrelated career, they forget it almost straight away. I think what I've taken away
from it, and probably a lot of my friends have, is more the skills and the confidence
that is instilled in you while working with people under a degree of pressure. I think
with most people it coincides with a period when they are growing up anyway, and
they become more confident and enjoy working with people. I think it's the social
skills that you take away more than anything. You'd probably get a different
response from somebody who has gone on to do a PhD.
I've had a fairly turbulent year. If it had been different, if I was coming to the end of
my first year of my Masters, I'd probably give you a different answer and say, ‘I think I
took away my knowledge, I think the most important thing I learned from my degree
was the hardcore subject-matter.’ Now I would probably say, ‘No, that's not the case,
it's probably the social skills more than anything.’ Which is something that most of
the degrees at Brookes now encourage because they appreciate that these
transferable skills are as important as what you actually learned. It's all very well
having a good knowledge of something, but if you can't interact with other people
within the workplace it's not beneficial to anybody.
I have friends who've gone to other universities, and when I said to them, ‘I've done x
number of presentations in the last month,’ they couldn't believe it. They've maybe
done one in their entire time at university. Oxford Brookes does seem to have a
good reputation with employers. When my girlfriend went into chartered
accountancy, she said she was from Oxford Brookes, and they said, ‘Yeah, we've
heard very good things about them.’ They loved the idea that she was already
confident about talking to people, because it saves them money having to train them.
I'm staggered that more universities don't go in for it.
I have a friend who studied Medieval Languages at Cambridge. He came out with a
2:2 and found that nobody wanted to employ him. Alright, he'd chosen a subject that
probably wasn't relevant to most people's modern way of life, but he was taught very
traditionally. He sat in lectures with other students and had one person talk for hours
on end and made notes and then went away at the end of three years and did
exams. You don't pick up any transferable skills from that. I think people picked up
on that very quickly in his job interviews: What have you actually learned from your
degree apart from this?
What I've taken away from the degree, more than anything, is feeling more confident
working with people. I wouldn't be in my job now if I wasn't comfortable working with
other people. It would be a bit daunting working with 30 students if I wasn't
comfortable working with them. By the end of three years you should be able to go
out and feel that what you've done will have a bearing on the rest of your life. I think
it has in my case, although I'm fairly unusual. I think it has played a role as to how I
am within society and how I interact with people. You experience that anyway in
student life without being taught it, just basically by being surrounded by people all
the time. You get to enjoy people's company. I think there's part of that that isn't
really taught you. They encourage it with group work but it's something that you pick
up anyway, whether it's part of your degree or not.
I've probably experienced every emotion possible in the last year and I don't know if
my degree has helped me. I think it probably has, because in the last three years it's
probably made me confident, and when you're battling with something like I had
you've got to have lots of confidence. So I think it helps there. It also helped that I
made lots of friends, and friends have suddenly become much more important in my
life now than they ever have been.
We started this project with a four pieces of information for each of 18 graduates –
full name, date of birth, degree and home address. None of the names were familiar.
‘You'll need a detective,’ someone said.
Nine of the graduates had parents who were still living at the same address. One of
them was Tina Yardley, 22, the youngest in our sample. We made contact in
November 1998 but she was very busy until the end of the year. ‘All I do is work
solidly,’ she said.
We finally meet early in January 1999 for the last interview of the project. (All the
other interviews had taken place between 13 July 1998 and 14 November 1998.)
The setting is one of London's major railway stations. We meet outside Tie Rack and
then adjourn to a nearby coffee-bar. Amidst the hubbub – noisy coffee machines,
crockery stacking, chatter and musak – Tina Yardley speaks clearly enough to be
easily understood. Her degree was Educational Studies and Geography.
Why the Course?
I came straight from school to Oxford Brookes University. Geography was my
strongest subject at school so that's how I came to be taking Geography at university.
My father was in the army so I grew up all over the place. I took my first four years of
schooling in Germany and spent the next nine years in a boarding school. I had
always wanted to be a teacher but I didn't want to go on an all-girls teacher-training
course because I had been to an all-girls school for nine years. Also, at sixteen you
can't really decide. In my heart I wanted to be a teacher but I thought, ‘I am only
sixteen, I could go into a teaching degree and it could be a big mistake.’ So I chose
Educational Studies because it had the links with Education. The idea was to do a
three-year degree and if I still wanted to be a teacher I'd do a Postgraduate
Certificate of Education with Geography as my subject.
My first choice was to do Combined Studies (Geography and History) at Manchester
University, but I didn't get my grade in History so I went to Oxford Brookes. I had
never been to Oxford. One of my close friends from school went to Oxford Brookes
to do her degree so she told me a lot, but I didn't understand the modular side of the
degree. I didn't know I was doing a modular course.
By the end of the course, I was relieved that I was doing a modular degree, but I was
very confused when I first got there. I didn't understand all the modules they threw at
me from the machine. You don't choose your modules. You get a piece of paper
with numbers on and you get a handbook and you look them up. The paper tells you
which room you've got to be in and gives you other modules that you might be doing,
such as Microsoft Computer Applications. And you think, ‘Oh my goodness, why
have they put me down for that course?’
I think the first term is about getting to know people. You are not really bothered
about the modules. It's just finding yourself at university and finding your way around
university. In the first-year Geography modules we were told, ‘You will not be
lectured to, there will be seminars, you will find yourselves in small groups, in
discussions, and doing presentations and debates and making posters.’
Talking to other students at other universities, they couldn't believe that we were
sitting in small groups talking rather than sitting in massive lecture halls. It was
almost like an expansion of little A level groups, which suited me because I would
have fallen asleep in a big lecture hall.
My biggest memory was the fear of presentations. The contrast between my first-
year presentations and my third-year presentations is amazing. In my first year they
were slapdash. By your third year you were doing massive handouts and overheads
and it was well thought-out.
I remember not liking a module about world hypotheses. Everyone found that very
confusing. It went straight over my head. I think we found it difficult because it
wasn't a topic that we had studied at A level. You start learning Geography at the
age of nine, or whatever, and you always centre in on a place and you study that
place in whole. Then you start thinking about GCSEs and Geography gets broken
down into Physical Geography and Human Geography. They are teaching the same
topics but going into more depth. And again at A level. If it's Physical Geography
you're still doing ‘coastal’ and ‘rivers’, and if it's Human Geography you're still doing
‘towns’ or whatever, but you're going into more depth. A lot of the modules for a
Geography degree, like Coastal Geomorphology, would again be repeating what you
were doing at A level but doing it in more depth, but World Hypotheses had no link.
Nothing. It was just learning new theories out of the blue. I found certain modules
hard because they weren't repeating themselves.
I didn't like the Educational Studies because it wasn't what I had assumed it would
be. It wasn't so much linked to schools, it was more the theory of education and it
was like starting a subject from scratch. Geography was where I got my best marks,
where I had my roots, and there were things I could build on, but I didn't enjoy the
I liked the field trips. Our first one was to Blaenavon in Wales in our first year. That
was about a coal-mining village where the coal-mines no longer work and there are
no jobs any more. We were in groups, and each group had to go round one of two
trails. You had to answer questions and find out information, and it was done in such
a way that people on one trail were finding information from one side of the story and
people on the other trail got the other side of the story. It was funny because no one
realised until we got back to the hotel. Everyone put their point of view and you
suddenly realised that it was like two viewpoints from two different newspapers. That
was quite interesting because it hadn't occurred to anyone that that was what they
were doing. That's what I remember from my first field trip.
I remember going on a Coastal Geomorphology field trip to Devon, which was all
very confusing. It was quite hard because our group didn't fully understand the
project we had chosen. I was interested in coasts and had enjoyed doing coasts for
A level, but it was a big jump from the A level course. I think our project was looking
at rocks to discover how old they were and looking at the river bed. All the field work
that went with it was enjoyable, but I don't think we understood it well enough to get
the maximum out of it.
And then of course we went to Galway City. That was good fun and everyone got on
with their projects, but we could have done more in the time. Everyone finished their
coursework in about three or four days and we were left to wander around Ireland.
That was good because I'd never ever been to Ireland before. The main road from
Dublin to Galway was just single carriageway both sides with bungalows about every
ten miles. I was quite amazed that Ireland wasn't more developed in that sense.
That was quite an experience.
My dissertation was about whether mobile-telecommunication masts were an
environmental hazard. I did a case study of a village near Oxford, looking at the
arguments for and against the mast going up. The masts basically followed the
routes of transport communication – you find them down the main motorways – and
my conclusion was that they weren't environmental hazards because, with the masts
being down all the main routes, it made communications better. People should be
able to telephone and fax each other and they shouldn't need to travel so much. If
the masts weren't there the roads would have to be extended because there would
be more cars on the road and more travelling. Obviously you can't just pick up a
road and turn it into a field again whereas you can take down a mast and keep the
field. Also, in ten years time, these masts will be taken down and there will be
satellites up in space anyway. That was the conclusion. Not that I got a very good
mark. They said I needed more primary information.
John Gold was my dissertation tutor. And I remember Judy Chance, who was my
tutor, and David Pepper. I do remember some of the other lecturers but I don't
remember names. They were all relaxed and willing to help. They all seemed to
have similar opinions on the environmental theme that used to run through all the
modules. I don't think I really shared the same opinions. I think there was a
difference of opinion as to what I thought was environmental and what they really
thought was environmental.
Working together as a team is a good teaching method as long as you use it
alongside other teaching methods. Unfortunately, every course you do at Oxford
Brookes is the same. You do, say, three modules a term, and in each one of those
modules you're doing a project with a group of people, a project with a partner and a
presentation. If you aren't close friends it is really hard to meet up with each other
and get your work together. What you tend to do then is to say, ‘Right, you do that
chapter, I'll do this chapter and you do that chapter.’ You go away and you're
concerned about one little bit and you haven't a clue about the rest of it.
Although it's a good way of teaching it can also go wrong because of all the other
modules you are doing – you might have two projects to hand in in one week. I just
found it better to do an essay by yourself. I think you learn more. When you go
away on field trips the team work is better because you're together all the time and
you can find out all the information together, whereas doing it at Oxford Brookes you
could hardly ever meet up with the people in the group. You just went off and did
your own section in the time available and learned about one chapter rather than the
I didn't belong to any of the societies. I know they have Geography ‘reps’ and people
who really get into the Geography course, but I didn't. I didn't go to the student
union. That's why the lecturers wouldn't really know me because I wasn't one of the
people who was always around. I just turned up for lectures. I never lived in halls of
residence so I wasn't often around.
Sometimes I had a job during term-time and sometimes I didn't. I worked in a
sandwich-making shop and I worked in Park End night club as bar staff. I worked in
Liberty's and I worked in Gap. And I did some ‘temping’. It didn't take up much time.
I worked in Park End twice a week in the evenings.
That was another problem of working on team projects – lots of people had part-time
jobs because Oxford's an expensive university to be at. You'd say, ‘That's the only
time I can meet,’ and they would say, ‘I have to be at work at that time, can you
change it?’ There was nothing you could do about that because they've got to
support themselves. (I still have debts.) So again that was another difficulty in doing
all the project work. It wasn't just Geography. Every module had project work and it
was so difficult to meet.
I did my PGCE in London as part of Kingston University and specialised in lower primary
(3 to 7 year olds). Without doing a teaching course, it would never have occurred to me
to think about the different ways of teaching – whole-class teaching, directed teaching,
little-group teaching, etc – and the types of teaching are amazingly different. You have
to teach in different ways as the children have got different abilities.
At university, the lecturers couldn't choose different methods for different people
because they didn't know us personally enough. I know my class because I teach them
all the time. I see my class every day and after the first couple of weeks I think, ‘Right,
this class benefits if I teach Geography that way rather than this way.’ You can work
with your class more. At a university the lecturers might know your name but they don't
know anything about you. All they can do is teach in a variety of ways and hope that
one of those ways will get through. At the beginning of the year they can't say ‘This year
is like this’ because there's 90 people and they don't know what they're like.
Geography was my specialist subject during my PGCE, but I actually found it the
hardest subject to teach during my teaching practice. I found it very difficult because
I had to come down several levels. With English and Maths I was relearning all
about metaphors and similes and how to do Maths. I was at a lot lower level so I
could focus in on the five-year-olds. I knew exactly where the problems are going to
be. They often say that the best teachers are people who had difficulties at school
because they understand why people can't get things right the first time. My
university Geography didn't really help me for my PGCE and my teaching. It might
help me if I ever become Head of Geography at a school. I would then be able to
talk to the other teachers and give them ideas about what they could do.
I teach five to six year olds in a private school at the moment. The private sector
tends to focus more on English and Maths. We teach Science, Geography and
History around topics but they don't play nearly as important role as they would in the
state system. In the private system English and Maths is taught every day. I don't
have as much chance to put across the skills I've learned in how to teach Geography
to children. Having said that, I think you'll find that primary state schools have less
chance to cover the Geography curriculum now because of Maths and English taking
over and the introduction of literacy hours and numeracy hours.
What Use is a Degree?
At the time I would think, ‘Oh, presentations, why are we doing these?’ But they do
set you up for later life. Standing up in front of people, telling them what you've
learned, giving the side of an argument (even if you don't believe it) improves
people's confidence enormously. That's the thing that struck me most about it – all
the presentations you had to do for all the courses.
Other than that, it has to be the people you meet there. You do lots of different
modules and every module is with different people. Sometimes you don't know
anyone on the module and sometimes you do a module with your friends, but you
meet so many people all the time and as a result you have a lot of friends, unlike
some other universities where you do your degree with the same people. At Oxford
Brookes you get to know a wide cross-section of people. What you take away with
you are the contacts.
One of the things that I was impressed about at Oxford Brookes, particularly in the
second and third years, was that you had to pick things up on the computer. It was a
former polytechnic and had links with industry, so I think that's why Computing plays
such a big part. At the time I begrudged it, but now I look back and think it's fairly good.
I'm glad it was a modular course. I don't think I would have got a degree without it
being a modular course, because it made it easier not to have finals. Having said
that, in the whole of the three years I think I only took three exams, because the
Educational Studies was 100 per cent coursework and the Geography was mostly
coursework. I worked out that in three years I wrote 90 essays, if you include
presentations and things.
In my second year I was bored to death. I really hated the degree. The modular
course is one way for people to get a degree without the massive pressure of finals
and also it offers you a greater variety of things to do, but to me it was exceedingly
boring. Another presentation, another essay, another project. Every module was
exactly the same, split down in the same way, and I think I would have preferred not
to have gone to university. Now that I've got a degree I'm very happy about it, but by
the end of the third year I just wanted to get out of the place and never see another
You do nine or ten modules a year and each one has three to four essays or
presentations or whatever. It works out to be an awful lot. Some of the Geography
modules had a 500-word evaluation that was worth five per cent of your module. In
Educational Studies, you'd have to do a 2,000-word evaluation of the whole module,
which counted as ten per cent of the module. To me that was pointless. You can't
mark what someone feels about the module. I didn't think that was right. But that
was mostly Educational Studies rather than Geography.
The second year I had the time of my life. The third year was basically ‘Let's get
through it, let's just finish it.’ I enjoyed every minute of being there. I don't regret
going to university but I wouldn't say ‘I'd definitely go there and do a degree again.’
The reason why I pulled myself through was that I knew that I needed to have a
degree to teach. But for me the whole process of having to get a degree was
tiresome. I never found the academic thing particularly interesting. It never really
appealed to me at the time anyway. I much preferred to be out enjoying myself.
Now I'm in education I enjoy being with younger children and teaching them and
seeing them learn. That's what I get out of it. Rather than learning the science itself
or the Geography itself or the History itself.
All my friends from Oxford Brookes are in London. They've done all sorts of things
but nothing that is really related to Geography. Most people think the money is in the
City and they go into recruitment or whatever. A lot of people choose their degree
subject by what interested them at A level. If they are good at that subject they do
the degree in that subject. Then, when they get a degree they can go and do what
they want, but at the end of the day they need a degree.
Geography is all around us, but some of my friends who come up and work in the
City have probably forgotten about their Geography. It would come back to them if
someone asked them about it but the idea is that you make money and go and do
something you enjoy. I can imagine that the Geography doesn't really mean an awful
lot to the majority of Geography graduates any more ... apart from the fact that their
degree allows them to answer Trivial Pursuit questions. They probably go round the
board choosing the Geography questions.
Methodology and Acknowledgements
The project was commissioned by Professor Alan Jenkins of Oxford Brookes
University. He set the agenda, provided access, supervised some funding from the
Centre for Staff and Learning Development, and offered support and enthusiasm
throughout the project. Dr Lynn Jones was the external consultant. She helped
design the project, and interviewed five graduates and one member of staff. Andrew
Ward did all except one of the other interviews, edited the transcripts and oversaw
the project in a way that retained the confidentiality of the interviewees.
The starting-place for the sampling frame was a list of 813 people who had
graduated within four years after entering the Geography programme at Oxford
Brookes University (Oxford Polytechnic) between 1979 and 1994. Students who had
dropped out before completing their degree were excluded from the study, as were
The population of 813 graduates was reduced to 305 graduates by focusing on six
equidistant cohorts rather than all 18 cohorts. These were the entry years of 1979,
1982, 1985, 1988, 1991 and 1994. The sample of 18 graduates is not a particularly
small one when seen in that light. It is 5.9 per cent of the graduates under study.
Having said that, there were also pragmatic reasons for choosing a sample of 18
graduates. It was a manageable sample in terms of the financing of the project and
we envisaged that a collection of 18 individual life-stories would approximate to the
size of a normal book.
The sample was stratified on the basis of gender and the students' other subject, and
we believe the sample is as representative as these things can be. The gender
breakdown of the population of the Geography graduates under study was 47 per cent
male, 53 per cent female, and the breakdown of their other subject was skewed to
applied subjects such as cartography and planning (44 per cent), social-science
subjects such as anthropology and economics (30 per cent) and science subjects (18
per cent). These distributions were taken into consideration in the sampling procedure.
The sample focused on ‘other subject’ cells which gave a representative picture,
selecting females from the more female-dominated subject combinations and males
from the male-dominated subject combinations. One graduate was chosen at
random from within each chosen cell. This provided a list of names for the sample.
We were then provided with each graduate's application details – their full name,
birth date and home address at the time they entered Oxford Polytechnic (or Oxford
Brookes University). All eighteen graduates were traced.
The first contact was a nervous moment. Generally, parents and other relatives were
very helpful, but a female researcher probably has a better response when
contacting parents with regard to the whereabouts of a daughter. In all but four
cases the graduate was contacted by telephone before being sent written details of
When formulating the methodology, we rejected the idea of substituting for non-
respondents. The randomness and representativeness of the subjects were the key
to this being a different type of study. Additional effort was put into tracing graduates
and travelling to see them.
Studies that concentrate on saturation samples of one particular cohort inevitably
generate more interest among the interviewees and make the task of contacting
people easier. The graduates would be more interested in what happened to the rest
of their peer group, and each of them will probably have stayed in touch with one or
two. That sort of study also has some intertextuality as graduates are able to talk
about other graduates and the resultant book has more coherence. However, for the
purpose of evaluating a course over a long period, it was deemed too risky to choose
one (or even two) particular years.
Another crucial issue is who should do the study. A member of staff would be instantly
recognised by the graduate on the first contact and would overcome any doubts about
the study. However, a member of staff also imposes some limitations on the study.
We favoured an independent study by people who had no preconceived theories or
only limited prior knowledge of the subject. But the interviewers must be interested in
the questions they are asking, and they must also be capable of empathising with each
graduate, whatever the graduate's circumstances.
First came interviews with staff about what they thought was important about the
Geography department. These interviews generally took about an hour and
concentrated on what the staff tried to get over to students and how that might have
prepared students for their life after a degree. The interviews began with background
questions about how the staff came to Oxford Polytechnic (or Oxford Brookes
University) and what courses they had taught. Then we moved on to other
questions: How would you describe the Geography Unit and what it has been trying
to achieve? What has the Geography discipline got to offer students? What have
been the most important changes in higher education? What have been the most
significant changes in Brookes University? How have these changes affected the
Geography Unit and you personally? What have you been trying to do in your
teaching? Do you remember any key incidents that affected you and your approach
– positive and negative incidents (where you thought ‘this is for me as a teacher’ or
‘this isn't for me’)? Did you think about the long-term impact your teaching might
have on students and what they might go on to do?
Then came the interviews with graduates. These took between 40 and 90 minutes.
It took about 30 minutes for the interviewee to settle into the questions and start
making key connections. As one graduate said, ‘You warm into it and remember
things as you go along, and then you start repeating yourself.’
We were happy for interviewees to answer the main question – what use is a
degree? – in whatever way they saw fit. However, there were a number of key
overarching questions: How did you come to do this degree and what were your
expectations? Describe your degree experience and what it meant to you at the
time; Outline what you have done since and what impact, if any, your degree has had
on that experience.
Then came possible sub-questions within the overarching themes: Why did you
choose that course at that particular institution? Did you know anything about the
course beforehand? What were your first impressions of Brookes – do you
remember any specific about the first term? Was there anything about your degree,
in particularly the Geography, that particularly interested you or that made a special
impact? Do you remember any of the teachers? What did you think to the teaching
methods? Can you describe the student culture – part-time jobs, the music, the
fashions, television, films, student societies, social life? Have you stayed in touch
with any of your college contemporaries? Were there any key incidents or events at
college that affected the direction you took after leaving? Can you remember any
significant national or local events that happened while you were at college or since
that might have influenced your decisions or affected your life and career? How has
your career developed since leaving? Working through your experience since, how
useful (or not useful) was your degree?
Matters of confidentiality were discussed, and when interviewees were sent copies of
the material to check, they were offered a choice between pseudonym and real
name. Six interviewees chose their real names.
Most evaluation in Higher Education takes ‘the course’ or ‘the curriculum’ as its unit
of analysis, whereas we were looking to locate ‘the individual's development’ as the
central dependent variable. If an education system is designed around student-
centred learning and skill-based curricula, then the unit of evaluation should be the
individual. And a long-term perspective on that individual is needed.
We approached the study from a number of different perspectives, and tried to link
sophisticated sampling with oral history and narrative psychology. The institution
(Oxford Brookes University), the course (Modular) and the discipline (Geography)
are not necessarily representative of all British Higher Education – this is not the
story of overseas students, ethnic groups or information technology – but all these
facets are highly relevant. To understand where Higher Education may be heading,
you can do little better than study a course that has been using modern teaching
methods for 20 years.
Several people offered special help with the project: Geron Swann provided a base in
Oxford and did one of the key interviews; Christine Collins of LINK-UP in Bury was a
great help in tracing the graduates; Professor David Pepper, our main link with the
Geography department, was particularly helpful; and Susan Wilkinson of Oxford
Brookes University was a great source of advice and support.
We would also like to acknowledge the work of Paul Collinson, who was Student
Liaison Officer in the Geography Department at Oxford Brookes University in 1996.
Using questionnaires, he collected ‘Where are they now?’ data for about 50 per cent
of those who graduated between 1986 and 1996. Only one of our sample was on
Paul's list but his potted biographies helped to fire our enthusiasms.
Three books deserve special mention: Sara Davidson's Loose Change tells the
stories of three female graduates from University of California at Berkeley through
the changing times of the sixties and early seventies; Michael Medved and David
Wallechinsky's What Really Happened to the Class of '65? contains the stories of 30
High School students ten years after their graduation; and Brian Jackson and Dennis
Marsden's Education and the Working Class is a classic interview study of the
progress of graduates.
In addition, we would like to thank two particularly inspirational researchers –
Caroline Alexander and Manny Ramos.
Caroline Alexander is the author of Battle's End, a book based on follow-up
interviews with American football players who had been in her remedial English class
at Florida State College ten years previously. Her book – and her reply to our
correspondence – helped us to design our project.
Manny Ramos was hitchhiking in Newfoundland, Canada, in September 1974 when
one of us (Andrew Ward) met him and was fascinated by his work. Ramos travelled
around North America, finding and interviewing all the hippies, drug users and
radicals he had known during the late-sixties. He eventually talked to 70 of them and
learned that 70 per cent had settled into steady, regular lives. His study was a
powerful follow-up prototype for us all (Ramos 1976).
A number of other people provided advice, information or practical help: Karen
Annesen, Emma Blackburn, Marjorie Bolton, Abigail Brady, Robert Chapman, Keith
Cooper, Paul Dewey, Caroline Found, Rosemarie Gallagher, Graham Gibbs, Anne
Horner, Freda Jones, Roger Lindsay, Rose Lonsdale, Aurora Martinez, Marcia
Mentkowski, Susan Prince, Rob Perks, Robert Ross, Pete Smith, Al Thomson,
Richard Wallace and Pete Wood. Thanks also to the Educational Methods Unit at
Oxford Brookes University for running off some copies of the video ‘Amsterdam 82’.
Our greatest debt, however, is to all the interviewees. The graduates were much
more helpful than we could have imagined, and some took great trouble with the
editing of the text. Meeting them was a fascinating and memorable experience, and
we would recommend any of them as a companion for a round-the-world trip.
Alexander, C. (1995) Battle's End (New York: Alfred A Knopf).
Davidson, S. (1978) Loose Change (New York: Pocket Books).
Jackson, B. & Marsden, D. (1966) Education and the Working Class (Middlesex:
Medved, M. & Wallechinsky, D. (1976) What Really Happened to the Class of '65?
(New York: Ballantine Books).
Ramos, M.R. (1976) Where have all the Hippies Gone? Straight – but not every one,
The Washington Post (Potomac), 4 January.
Jenkins, A., Jones, L. & Ward, A. (2001) The Long-term Effect of a Degree on
Graduate Lives, Studies in Higher Education, 26(2), pp.149-163.
This article considers the long-term effect of a degree on graduate lives. By
following-up a degree course which has used active-learning methods within a
modular course for over 20 years, we provide a prototype for evaluating the
lifelong learning generated by modern day teaching methods. While we concur
with other researchers that there are communal benefits from a degree, we also
conclude that there is a huge variation in the long-term effects of a course on a
relatively homogeneous group of students. The variation comes from four main
sources: (i) individual student backgrounds; (ii) different reconstructions of the
same academic experience; (iii) the different personal circumstances while at
college; and (iv) the effects of individual careers after graduation (which in turn
leads to further individual reconstructions). These findings have three major
implications for higher education policy: (i) evaluation can benefit by changing its
major focus from individual courses to the whole college experience; (ii) there is
value in looking at the long-term impact of that college experience; and (iii) all
teaching and evaluation should respect the huge differences between individuals
on the same course. These findings challenge any teaching method, course
comparison or policy implication which treats students as a homogeneous group.
Jenkins, A. & Ward, A. (2001) Moving with the Times: An Oral History of a Geography
Department, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 25(2), pp.191-208.
The 30-year story of the geography department at Oxford Brookes University is
presented as an oral history in the words of the experienced full-time staff. The
department has gained a reputation in the UK and beyond for innovative active-
learning methods and its story is an example of how a pedagogic culture can
develop in a geography department. The story can also be read as a case study
of a workplace in higher education, or as a contribution to the history of
education. Most importantly, though, it offers insight into the key factors
concerning the development of innovative teaching practice.
Ward, A. & Jenkins, A. (1999) Collecting the Life-stories of Graduates: Evaluating
Students' Educational Experiences, Oral History, 27(2), pp.77-86.
This article outlines the methodology used for a long-term follow-up study of
graduates from an award-winning university course. It shows how oral historians
can help to shift the emphasis of evaluation – from short-term questionnaire
studies to a long-term perspective that focuses on the individual's development.
The study shows a huge variation in individual responses to the same course.
Three issues are used to demonstrate this in more detail: (i) how graduates come
to the course from different starting-points and yet agree on the value of a year-
out; (ii) how graduates' opinions of groupwork as a teaching method vary
according to their experience since graduating; and (iii) how a multitude of factors
affect graduates' responses to what they consider useful about their degree.