According to my mum and my passport, neither of which have that good a reason to lie, I was born in Haverfordwest, the county town of Pembrokeshire with an average income £8,000 less than the UK average. It’s also a birthplace shared with (surprisingly) Christian Bale and (less surprisingly) Rhys Ifans; he played the Welsh one in Notting Hill. Growing up in Pembrokeshire meant that university was something far away, but my primary school did its best to convince us that, unlike the majority of our parents, we would all probably end up attending university before eventually working an unspecified office job; this, because we were in the pre-recession noughties and someone at St Teilo’s RC School Tenby probably had The Office on DVD.
My first real interaction with academia was the not exactly elitist Channel 4 popular archaeology programme Time Team. For me and many others, Time Team brought what felt like the cutting edge of academic research into our Saturday morning, right after having watched amateur “robotiers” have their dreams crushed by Sir Killalot and Matilda. The show was fronted by Baldrick (it took a few years for me to get why my parents never called him Tony), a man who, though from an entertainment-related rather than an academic background, had a real passion for history and managed to break down everything into layman’s terms. The accessible language and format of Time Team made it possible for history to turn into a Saturday morning passion I could share with my Dad, who had left school at 16.
Before coming to Glasgow I was educated at Coleg Sir Gâr, a further education college in Llanelli (fun fact: that’s in Wales). College really did try its best to ensure everyone got into university, but it could never have hoped to match the UK’s private school elite in the resources or contacts they had with Britain’s “elite universities”. This became particularly apparent in occasion of an open day at Cambridge, where three of us from college had to individually make our way and find somewhere to stay: whilst I had a fun experience with a double booked Airbnb, an unnamed “elite” school had booked a hotel and transport for any interested pupils. N.B. when I tried to get a lift as far as London with them they refused, as good a reason as any to call for the abolition of private schools.
But why did everyone from a college in Llanelli need to go to university? One member of my form group had a post college job fully set up but, due to what they and the rest of the group all assumed to be Department for Education targets and to college rankings, they had to apply for university places they had no intention of taking up. The stigma of not “taking the opportunity” to go to university is something which college and school leavers from working class backgrounds will have to deal with until alternatives to university are destigmatised, or everyone in the UK is able to access university without issue, and neither of those seem on the horizon.
The guilt induced by the fact that both my mum’s husband and my gramps were unable to progress anywhere near as far as they should have in formal education despite being two intelligent men and that I had an opportunity they didn’t was one of the factors that led to me deciding to stay in university when I went through a period where I really felt the University of Glasgow wasn’t for people like me. At the time, I had to fight against the feelings that I’d be more at home either in a former polytechnic or leaving university altogether but, if these two men hadn’t even gotten the opportunity to start university, I should at least have the decency to take the one I have and complete my degree, shouldn’t I?
Coming from a background where my education took place primarily in a former hospital and portacabins, even the architecture of university feels like it isn’t for me. The Gothic Revival Gilbert Scott Main Building is doubtlessly beautiful on its exterior, but if it was in a state school it would unquestionably have been sold off to be made into luxury flats. It may be a joke to some, but I’ll always feel more at home in the inner beauty and functionality of the Boyd Orr building. There’s honestly a part of me that feels uneasy about writing about the emotional effect of architecture on me: whether or not that’s a male thing or to do with my background, it’s still odd considering I’m an art history student.
[Sam Foley – he/him –@wholesamness]
[Photo credit: dorinser/flickr.com]