We think a lot about teenage rites of passage. Our first novel, Lobsters, was all about A-level results terror and losing your virginity. Our second, Never Evers, dealt with school trips and first kisses. So, when it came to writing a third, there was only one subject we wanted to cover: university.
The resulting novel, Freshers, came out in August this year, but we started planning it way back in January 2016. We both went to the University of York, so we had tons of shared experiences and embarrassing stories to work with. We dug out our old photos and began brainstorming all the uni memories we wanted to include: mad games of campus Sardines, attending the wrong lecture on a hangover, a long list of people we knew only by their hastily appointed nicknames (Red Jumper Girl, Interesting Thought Boy, Afraid-Of-Sex Phil, and many more).
But at some point in the process, it hit us: It had been 11 whole years since we'd actually set foot on a university campus. Since we were writing about teens in 2017, we felt that we needed to experience what uni was actually like now, rather just relying on our decade-old memories.
There was only one thing for it: We had to go back.
So, one cold, sunny weekend in February 2016, we boarded a train up to York to relive our youth and see how much had really changed. Here's what we learned...
1. Some things never change – messy student flats are one of them.
When we stepped off the train at York station, we knew the first thing we wanted to do was look around the campus living quarters to see how much (if anything) had changed. We promptly headed straight back to our old college, and tracked down a fresher kind (or maybe drunk) enough to let us come and have a nose around.
The smell of fried cheese and stale alcohol hit us as soon as we opened the door, and we immediately exchanged a look that was half nose-wrinkled disgust, but half happy relief: It was weirdly comforting to see that nothing had changed in terms of rock-bottom campus hygiene.
The fridge was packed with long-expired condiments, the floors were so sticky it felt like walking in very weak quicksand, and the kitchen counters had all been colourfully Jackson Pollocked with everything from pasta sauce to sambuca. Not that the students themselves seemed to mind, of course: They loved it. In the first year, that incredible excitement of suddenly living away from home, in a big block of flats surrounded by people your own age, is still completely fresh – and no amount of grease or dirt can erode it.
2. Everyone is now weirdly buff.
It's been written about a lot recently, but the stereotype of the student has changed considerably over the past decade. When we left in 2005, the classic ’80s student stereotype (as seen in The Young Ones, Viz, and David Nicholls' excellent Starter for Ten) was still pretty much in place – particularly for males. However, in recent years, the nerdy, Che-Guevara-T-shirt-wearing stoner has been usurped by the tougher, sportier, banter-spouting “lad”. And while “uni lads” were still definitely a fixture back when we were studying, they certainly weren't quite so obsessed with health and fitness.
The male freshers we encountered when we went back were all built like brick walls, and while alcohol was still a big part of the culture, they talked about counterbalancing their boozing with training. So, a night of binge drinking would be set off with a morning of binge working out. This is strange, because when we were at uni, life (for blokes, anyway) was just a constant, greyish blur of inactivity: drinking a lot, eating poorly, and sitting about playing video games. Even for members of the sports teams, the idea of going to the gym on your own time would have been dismissed as A) insane, and B) a waste of precious drinking hours.
3. Snapchat has made uni more social than ever.
Back in 2003, organising a uni night out meant traipsing up and down the corridor, knocking on doors. Reliving it would have to wait until your blurry disposable camera photos had been developed at Snappy Snaps. So, without wishing to sound too much like a Daily Telegraph opinion piece on “millennials”, it was interesting for us to see how much social media now dictated campus life.
We are 34 and 35 respectively, and when we left York in 2005, Facebook had not yet exploded in the UK. When it did, just a few months later, it changed everything, and the decade since has seen the internet dominate all aspects of uni decision-making. Every fresher we spoke to when we went back told us that both the befores and afters of IRL socialising on campus were dictated by social media: They'd check Snapchat before, to see where everyone was going, and then they'd be straight back on the morning after to see what terrible, drunken mistakes were made, and track down people they'd met and fancied. This was pretty odd for us, as not only did we not have social media at uni, but we didn't even have laptops. In fact, our only real interaction with technology during those three years was sitting in the computer room at 3 in the morning, frantically trying to finish an essay while some oddball sat down the other end, not-very-subtly watching porn.
4. Higher fees mean less partying,
We left uni owing nine grand in total for our three years of higher education. It's a sizeable sum, but still manageable and certainly not scary enough to put you off missing a lecture or two along the way. The generation who've gone to uni since 2011, however, are immediately down £50,000. That is a serious, life-altering amount of money – and one that instantly discourages a large chunk of the population from even attending uni – and the toll it's taken is clear to see.
As we walked around our old college, we spoke to several first-years who were just starting their second term, all of whom admitted that partying would now have to take a step back because of the massive financial pressure they felt. In our day, this kind of thinking didn't happen until at least third year. It seems sad because one of the most important things about university is going out and making friends, and we remember that first term – or even, really, that whole first year – as being far more about socialising than studying. But now, with this vast shadow of debt hanging over them, the pressure to come away with a decent degree is heavier than ever.
5. Uni fashion is still something else.
The early ’00s fresher's sartorial checklist was pretty much a catalogue of the most horrific fashion fails to ever have happened. Corset top and jeans with the waistband cut off, anyone? One-shoulder top that means it's literally impossible to find a bra to wear underneath? Or, most memorably, a bright white boob tube, all ready to have blue WKD spilt down it that will glow under the UV lights like a dream?
We thought (and hoped) that these things were now simply ghosts of fashion past, but a walk around campus in 2017 proved to us that the decade style forgot is back, and with bells on. We clocked no fewer than four (FOUR) boob tubes out in the wild. Why is this questionable item making a comeback? We've no idea. But if our generation had to live to regret the baggy combats and belly tops, then damn it, so should the next one.
6. Our nostalgia levels were insane.
We had not set foot on York campus for more than a decade, and since the three years we spent there were pretty formative, we ended up suffering a severe nostalgia attack almost every five metres. You'd stroll past the tree where you had a fight with some long-forgotten girl- or boyfriend, or the steps outside the theatre where you waited nervously for an audition, or the corridor where you once spent a whole afternoon whizzing through the kitchen on a mattress with four skateboards under it. And it's more than simple deja vu – it's proper, stop-you-in-your-tracks sentimentality, taking you back to how you felt at that moment. It made us feel happy and sad and much older all at the same time. We ended putting a lot of stuff about memory into the book, purely because of these nostalgia-fuelled instances.
7. You don't know what you've got till it's gone.
As we got ready to leave campus, the sun was starting to set. We strolled down one of the covered walkways around the lake, and passed two girls, arm in arm, heading for the supermarket. One of them was still in her pyjamas, and wearing her duvet like a massive coat. It was a completely joyous image, and it made us think: At what other point in your life would it be deemed acceptable to step out in public wearing a piece of bedding?
It made us both realise that despite the pressure and grotesque kitchen surfaces, these years really are hugely special. So, if you're starting uni this autumn, make the most of it, and enjoy yourself! Oh, and be sure to buy the snazziest duvet you can find.
Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison are the authors of Freshers, out now.
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