New Young Puritans: students get serious

At well past midnight, Reading university is fully awake. The midweek club night, known as Flirt, emits a dull thud of bass, and from time to time revellers stumble out. But far more of their undergraduate classmates have chosen a different nocturnal location — the library, which towers above the bar, its brightly lit floors glowing like a beacon across campus.

Reading’s students’ union fought a tough campaign to secure round-the-clock access to the library and was rewarded last spring when it started a 24-hour service. Sir David Bell, the vice-chancellor, recalls that when the assembled student body was told that he had agreed to their demands, their response was “extraordinary”. The union rep who broke the news could barely be heard above the noise of celebration, he says. “It was amazing, she had hardly got the words out and she was interrupted by spontaneous applause.”

To previous generations for whom higher education was more akin to three years of state-sponsored hedonism, hailing the opening of an all-night library may sound laughable. But in universities around Britain, a new puritanism driven by an uncertain labour market and greater financial constraints is redefining what it means to be young.

Now, in the early hours, Reading’s five-storey library is filled with toiling workers. Couples chat quietly in cosy booths while larger groups plan presentations in glass-walled “study pods”. In the silence of the book stacks, individuals pore over their texts. Since opening hours were extended night attendance has boomed, and more than 230 students were regularly found working here past 1am during exams. Even in the autumn term, with no imminent tests, desks are well populated as dawn approaches.

Nineteen-year-old Louise Bula, a second-year nutrition and food science student, is dressed for an evening out. Instead, she is sitting at a desk memorising terminology with a friend. “It’s a matter of feeling safe, having something to lean on, knowing you are going somewhere,” she explains when asked why she is in the library so late. “In our generation, there are lots of people who feel lost. It’s a battle­field, and you need to feel prepared to the max. If you haven’t worked hard then you don’t stand a chance, because so many more people have a degree now.”

Oxford students celebrating the end of exams in 1976

The night-time facilities have proved so popular that soon after the campaign victory, with exams approaching, the union hired a petting zoo to enforce the point that “a 24-hour library doesn’t mean 24-hour study”. Undergraduates could decompress by cuddling baby goats, lambs, rabbits and a Shetland pony.

Still, an undercurrent of pressure has become the touchstone for a class of youngsters who seem to approach their studies more diligently, and soberly, than their predecessors. Financial and demographic shifts have contributed to the change in attitude: higher tuition fees, which tripled to a maximum annual charge of £9,000 three years ago, are saddling students with more debt, while a growing pool of graduates has made it harder to find employment.

2/3

Proportion of students who have a part-time job

Despite the fee increase, the number of new undergraduates topped half a million for the first time last year, and is up by more than a third over the decade. Not long after the higher fees were introduced, it emerged that only half of university-leavers had managed to secure graduate-level jobs. Ed Miliband, Labour party leader, is so concerned about the prospect of the next generation being worse off than their parents that he has proposed cutting pension tax relief to reduce tuition fees to £6,000 if he wins the general election in May.

Economic realities also appear to have shaped behaviour. Increasingly, youngsters are combining full-time studies with part-time work. The revels of the 1980s and 1990s appear to have given way to a more puritanical focus, traditionally associated with students at US universities. The shift starts in secondary school: regular smoking among teenagers has fallen from 9 per cent to 3 per cent over the past decade, according to the NHS, while the number who said they had taken illegal drugs has halved. Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed last month that the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds engaging in binge-drinking has fallen from 29 per cent to just 18 per cent in the past 10 years.

The 24-hour library at Reading university

Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students, is a sparky, fast-talking pragmatist who is unsentimental about the new reality. “I think it’s fair to say that for a lot of students today, the party’s over,” she says. “They’ve got huge burdens to worry about.”

Pearce — the first NUS president not to have a degree, having bypassed university in favour of a cheaper and more vocational further education college — is concerned that increases in the cost of living are driving students towards high-risk debt and rising levels of poor mental health. “I think we are putting young people in this situation where there is this huge pressure on them to do better than the generation before them, to go out and get amazing jobs, and to get the best possible degree they can, and they’re being set up to compete with each other,” she says.

Pearce, who is 24, often sounds more like a workplace trade unionist than an education representative. She admits that while the NUS has talked about employment in the past, it was never with “anywhere near the amount of emphasis” that it has now. But the union is reflecting the changing concerns of its membership, she says. “[Students] feel like it’s normal to do an unpaid internship to get on to the job ladder; it’s normal to work for less than the minimum wage; it’s normal to not receive a living wage.”

Pearce describes this situation as being “a million miles” away from the experiences of those who benefited from the era of free higher education and generous maintenance grants. “Students today are pushing themselves harder than they ever have before,” she says, “just to keep pace with people who’ve come before them.”

In his lab-side study, Reading virology professor Ian Jones is holding forth on how students have changed since he arrived at the university more than 15 years ago. Student satisfaction surveys have shown that across the sector, undergraduates paying higher fees are demanding better facilities, more contact hours with teaching staff and additional feedback. This transition has not been lost on Jones, who no longer gives out his mobile number for fear that students will call him at 3am, and explains that more engaged undergraduates are more tiring to teach. “Put simply, I get a lot more inquiries now, following a lecture, than I would have done five years ago,” he says wearily.

Reading is a red-brick university which ranks in the top 20 per cent of UK higher education institutions. Not numbered among Britain’s elite “Russell Group” — equivalent to the US Ivy League — it has nevertheless risen steadily through the rankings and is now rated third in the country for research on environmental sciences. Jones, a wiry academic in checked shirt and jeans, acknowledges that there are pros and cons to today’s more industrious attitudes. “On the good side, I would say there’s far less graffiti on desks. There’s much less of the sort of trivia, I think, which sometimes used to happen in the back rows of lecture theatres,” he says. “I would say that there appears to be a more businesslike attitude to taking the course than there would have been years ago.”

43%

Rise in number of 16 to 24-year-olds who are teetotal since 2005

However, the virologist fears that harder-working undergraduates now consider university to be less of an experience and more of a “process”. “I think the top 10 per cent will always be scholarly and love the subject but I think there is a bigger group who do it in a more . . . utilitarian way,” he says. “They want the training in order to get the degree, in order to get a job. It’s as simple as that. They really only see it as a workmanlike thing and not something that they’re going to tear their hair out to get in the lab and work on.”

Jones is wistful as he notes the decline of the “true scholarly students” with “wild haircuts and beer-stained T-shirts”. One reason for declining academic zeal is, he suggests, the rise in the number of students who simply cannot spend hours testing new methods in the lab because they are working to fund their studies. Nearly two-thirds of students now have part-time jobs — an increase of about 10 per cent in the past two years, according to research by insurance company Endsleigh and the NUS. Some undergraduates are even juggling two part-time jobs in order to make ends meet.

At 1am in Reading’s library, two economics students have commandeered a study pod to drill their biweekly maths tests. Both are working part-time: James Ostler, 19, sells computers, while Francesca Agina, 18, returns to her home town every weekend to work double shifts in Sainsbury’s. They consider university a Monday-to-Friday existence, and will work until 2am before returning to the campus for 9am lectures. Despite being freshers, both consider it vital to achieve a first in the end-of-year exams if they are to secure a good placement in industry. Ostler admits candidly that he’s not drawn to spending long nights in the bar but Agina says she’s frustrated at not being able to pursue the social life she imagined she would have. “I would prefer to be out but when I did that earlier in the year I’d miss the early lectures the next day,” she says. “If I’m not here in the library, I’m in lectures or I’m at work — there isn’t time for anything else.”

£9,000

Maximum annual tuition fees, treble the rate in 2011/12

Just 150 miles southwest of Reading lies the University of Exeter — a high-ranking academic institution renowned for its picturesque campuses set in the cathedral city and along the Cornish coast. But the Russell Group university has begun to attract interest for more prosaic reasons: its efforts to ensure students will be employable after they leave.

Staff initially picked up on undergraduate concerns about entering the job market after growing numbers of first-year students started attending careers events intended for those closer to graduating. In response, the university has bolstered its careers service — staff numbers have risen 50 per cent in the past five years — and designed an “Exeter Award” to recognise the activities that students pursue outside their degrees.

Central to the award is a programme of volunteering projects run by the Students’ Guild. Sara Bennett, who manages the scheme, has been stunned by the demand. Last September, she asked for 20 English Literature students to volunteer to read novels in care homes — and ended up with 170 students begging to take part. By the fifth week of term, half the English undergraduates had asked to join to scheme. “We had to rush around the city finding more care homes for them to go to,” Bennett says.

Drama students now run a “reminiscence” group acting out memories for early-stage dementia sufferers, and the Harry Potter Society organises a Quidditch league for vulnerable pupils in a local school. French, Spanish and Maths undergraduates offer extra tuition classes for both primary and secondary pupils.

Bennett acknowledges that while such altruism is to be encouraged, care homes and school classrooms are unlikely student hang-outs. But times have changed. “Would that we were back in the halcyon days of, ‘We are all going to get a job and it’s all going to be fine,’” she says. “That’s just not the case any more. They are all more anxious and worried about their futures.”

Even at Oxford and Cambridge — where higher employability prospects have insulated students from some of the career pressures felt by their peers elsewhere — there is a sense that behaviour is shifting. David Bainbridge, an admissions tutor at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, is concerned that diligence and worries about “how many jobs there will be and how much of their loans they will have to pay” are changing the nature of the student experience. The academic, who has written a book charting the “natural history” of teenage behaviour, suggests that the spark has gone out of the student body and that, as a result, “you don’t get many political firebrands any more”.

Bainbridge says that when he mentions to today’s undergraduates how he spent his own student years in the 1980s, attending poll tax marches and engaged in late-night debates, “they look as if you are some kind of political extremist”. Instead, he fears, students are doing purposeful activities which they think will look good to future employers — regardless of whether they actually enjoy them.

47%

Reduction over the past decade in number of teenagers who take illegal drugs

The loss, he argues, is the exceptional experience of student-hood. “University should be three years which are completely different from the whole of the rest of your life: you are no longer a child but you’re also rescued from thinking like an adult,” Bainbridge reflects. “The more you have to do paid work, the more you have to worry about the future, the less distinctive those three years will be.”

The cost of these worries is also being felt in clubs and bars around Britain. Straitened times and studious attitudes appear to have reduced appetites for never-ending nights out. Instead, the social lives of today’s students are more similar to those of the older and employed.

This change is borne out starkly in data: the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds in Britain who reported that they do not drink alcohol at all has increased by more than 40 per cent over the past decade, according to the ONS. Students and pensioners were jointly singled out as being half as likely to be heavy drinkers as those who were employed or looking for work.

In a sign of changing recreation habits, drug-taking among youngsters has also gone into decline. Home Office research shows that the proportion of young adults who admitted to taking drugs has fallen from 48 per cent two decades ago to 36 per cent today.

One of the first to notice these shifts was Fiona Measham, a criminology professor at Durham university, who predicted eight years ago that Britain would experience a dramatic downturn in youth drinking culture. After more recent observations of her own students, and research at bars and festivals, Measham — an expert in the night-time economy — says today’s youngsters represent a “calm after the storm” of the 1980s and 1990s excesses.

“Every generation wants to be different to the one before, and the last one was a binge-drinking, bar-hopping, cocaine-snorting group,” she says. “Young people now want to be different to that. Austerity in general also means that everyone is thinking more carefully about money and about the future.”

While Measham believes that falls in student alcoholism can be tracked directly against the rise of tuition fees and the erosion of maintenance grants, she also says that part-time work has given a structure to student life so that the week “doesn’t stretch ahead in a big haze, in the way that it used to”. Cheap deals to tempt students into clubs and bars on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights are less successful than they used to be. In short, students’ social lives are becoming distinctly middle-aged.

Proving the point, Reading’s Wednesday club night, formerly the most popular event of the week, is now suffering declining attendance. In the bar, takings from alcohol sales are falling but students are spending more on food. “People are preferring to have a nice meal or something and that kind of experience rather than going out and getting drunk every night,” says Natalie Harper, a 22-year-old politics graduate who now works at the university full-time as students’ union president. “We think this is because of the shift in trends to do with students wanting to get value for money, but also make sure that they’re studying.”

Even during freshers’ week — traditionally a drunken initiation into the student lifestyle — Harper says there were requests for events that did not revolve around alcohol. “Having a meal or going to the cinema or going ice skating or paintballing, just something that’s different rather than binge-drinking, that’s what they asked for,” she says.

Part of this aversion is certainly driven by rising numbers of international students, who are more likely to be teetotal for cultural or religious reasons. At Reading, enrolments of non-Britons are up by just over a quarter over the past year and there is now even a Korean supermarket on campus. But this increasing diversity would not account for the wider changes in attitude which staff have noticed across the university population.

Whether these trends are good or bad is open to debate. Few would criticise the decrease in binge-drinking, which will bring health benefits in the long term, but is the greater studiousness and anxiety about jobs changing university life for the worse?

Sir David Bell, Reading’s vice-chancellor, sees much to admire in the strengthened work ethic. Formerly a Whitehall mandarin, Sir David arrived three years ago at Reading — his first university post — and was “surprised” at how hard-working the students were. “Students are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t,” he argues. “In the past, students were accused of being lazy and having a three-year party, and now they are told they’re working too hard. It’s easy to sneer . . . but it’s a tough old world out there so I have huge admiration for this generation of students and what they are doing.”

Also at the 24-hour library at Reading university

However, some fear that undergraduates are simply being driven too hard. The push towards a successful career starts in school, and Measham, who has a teenage daughter, says it’s extraordinary how young people see themselves “as products that they have to sell on the market”.

For Reading students’ union president Natalie Harper, high stress levels among the newer contingent are a “major worry”. Despite the success of the campaign to keep the library open, she admits it is now “probably over-used”. Her theory is that this cloistered space, rather than the bar, has become its own form of “weird, geeky kind of socialising hub”.

Stalking the library’s corridors in the early hours, it is tempting to reach the same conclusion. The only sounds which cut through the whispers are the rustles of illicit food supplies — Haribo sweets, popcorn and Pringles — being shared. The clock ticks on. One student, who has succumbed to fatigue in front of his mathematical modelling, snores gently. The question, Professor Bainbridge warns, is whether this generation will look back in 20 years’ time, wishing they had had a bit more fun.

Helen Warrell is the FT’s public policy correspondent

Illustration by Barry Falls

Photographs: Jean Goldsmith; Getty Images

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.