It’s my first day of the third year of university. For some reason, I didn’t sleep much last night. It’s quite odd – I think at some points I never dreamed I’d get here. At most points I was sure I didn’t want to, but that the options within the walls of this institution seemed safer, less grievous, maybe even more promising than outside. I think a lot of those promises have been quaked and broken – in debt, repression, alienation and trauma – and reforged – in community, friendship, love, and maybe, even, in glimpses of belonging – again and again. It’s been turbulent, to say the least, frenzied for all the reasons capital and security and management and the state did and didn’t want.
I grapple with the reality, try to trace its contours, wonder whether it’s real and whether it means anything, what it could have meant if I’d have done things differently, if I’d have stayed a little longer in the club where I’d felt the least safe and most alone I’d ever felt in my life in first year, if I’d joined different societies, if I’d spent less time in occupations and court rooms and police stations and more in lecture halls, if I didn’t lose all my focus and will to engage with my course, if I indulged the simulations of the ‘student experience’ a little more. And yet, some part of me still feels like a fraud – this all still feels counterfeit, less like I’ve missed out on something and more like we all have, like none of this has ever actually been ours.
It’s kind of surreal, seeing the excited new throngs of freshers on campus, in all their multitudes of hopes and worries and complexities and eagerness and contradictions and truths. I think I’ll try to find myself among them, to ponder how paths intersect and diverge and unfold, how Universities – encumbered and embattled as the sector is by the market – illuminate and eclipse those courses, enclose as much as unravel them, confine as much as open them, how the terrain shifts beneath our feet, whether people feel like they’re chasing something here, racing to outmanoeuvre one another or get ahead because the maze continues to close in on them, whether they’ll feel disoriented or out of step, whether they’ll see the chalk or banner or spray paint on the walls and feel some surge of guidance like I did – or whether to them, and to some distant part of me, it feels like just another gimmick, another distraction, maybe even a dead-end, and we should not dedicate ourselves to the illusions of a way out.
How do they navigate this fortress? How do their horizons kindle and conjure themselves, if at all? Do they notice the cracks in the walls, or see the walls at all? Is this is a sojourn, an escape for them, a glade finally discovered after the thickets and brambles of their old lives – or a deeper and denser foliage through which they feel obliged to wade? That is – do they feel they are chasing, or being chased – or both, or neither? If I was there with them, would I end up in the same place that I am now? Would I want to? Do we have some opportunity to tap into a variety of spectacles, but each one remains a spectacle nonetheless – is this course always set, always turning back in on itself, winding and leading to the same destination?
After all, everything’s changed, and everything’s still the same. It’s the same old authoritarianism of Thrift, under the deviously amicable visage of Stuart Croft, who performs with more flourishes but is – and I think we all expected this – following the same script. It’s another £9,000 in debt, maybe more, loaded on to already heavy shackles – ever shifting, spectral digits manipulated by financiers and politicians for solely their benefit, the terms and conditions always controlled by them as they speculate on and trade our futures amongst themselves, relegating education to a process of owing and not discovery. It’s the same cold, pristine, hollow walls, under the sheen of new expansions and constructions and branding. It’s the same wicked monster, with different contortions and a gentler visage and its claws concealed. It’s home, and a place that is cruelly distant, all at once, one where we feel preyed upon by pernicious corporations hoping to lure and snare us into their web, honing us into compliant, yet aggressive, and exploitable, yet ruthless, personnel – to internalize their sinister image, to draw on and foster the worst in us. The so-called ‘graduate premium’ is a ghost, rent through by debt and precarious employment and austerity. Our education is reduced to a lever in the ‘pipeline’ to finance and industry, and we to raw material honed, processed and channelled to our allotted positions within a socio-economic machinery soldered together at its hinges by debt, stalling and overheating and barely heaving on.
The establishment proclaims a commitment to ‘social mobility’ whilst abolishing maintenance grants and savagely cutting every public service imaginable. They idolise ‘teaching excellence’ and propose to improve it by further auditing and overworking staff who are struggling to make ends meet on hourly paid contracts. They deem their new reforms guarantors of ‘student choice’ whilst raising tuition fees and forcing us to take on higher and higher loans. The university managers declare that the devastating changes to Higher Education are ‘national issues beyond their control’ whilst they sit in Russell Group meetings and shake hands with government officials behind closed doors. They brand us ‘yobs’ and ‘intimidating to staff’ and surveil and brutalize protestors when we dare to resist and fight back (often in alliance with staff), whilst exalting critical thinking and changing the world and whilst mythologising the protests of the past into their marketing strategies. They talk of ‘democracy’ whilst the democratic process is eviscerated to a functional ratification of decisions already dictated by the pressures of capital. There’s a reason why I’m wandering, why my mind’s always somewhere else and I’m always tired and why I have far too many nightmares. The routines of normality have settled themselves in lies and deceptions. I wonder if the new students feel cheated, or whether they will, and for what reasons, and whether they’ll fight with us.
I don’t regret how my time at university has turned out, even when it’s been hard. Everything’s become brighter, and darker. But I know it’s worth it for every moment the light burst through the cracks, and I didn’t feel so lost and torn and scared anymore; for every moment I glimpsed the walls crumbling, and us smashing through them; for every moment the shadows seemed to recede upon the advance of our chants and flares and fire. Whatever happens, at least I can say I tried – tried to cast a flint against this rock, to confront the demons that haunt this place, to map pain and begin to trust that I had companions who wished to tread the same path as me, who ventured to chart the unknown and believed the horizon was something worth reaching towards, that we could steady one another and band together and carry on, and that the journey, in its turmoil and setbacks and obstacles and rigours and exhilarations and discoveries and joys, could demand realities of dreams.