45 years on, I remember my first days as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh very vividly. The particular light on the leaves blowing around George Square; the smell of the lifts in the David Hume Tower (as it’s no longer called); my sinister matriculation photograph. But mainly, of course, it was the people – the almost unlimited number of potential new friends. On the first day, I stood by myself in a jostling queue waiting for the introductory lecture for Eng. Lit 1, which followed on from a similar delight for British History 1. In front of me a posh English girl and her new pal from Fife commented on the fact that it was running ten minutes late. ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘History must be repeating itself.’ And on the strength of that we were friends. I danced at both their weddings. We went in, sat together, and looked at the two hundred others who were crammed in, and we were content, wondering which of all the students there we would befriend or love. It was beautiful. Sigh.
Things are not so good today as the chilly winds of autumn welcome Scotland’s newest undergraduates. Many of them are jailed inside their student halls with a few other young people they barely know and can’t mingle with. Their teaching is all online – now an online lecture might be tolerable, particularly if you don’t have to be there at 9 am, but I do not believe that the interaction of a live tutorial is readily recreated in a Zoom meeting. For many of these young people, this is their first real time away from home and family, their jumping off point into independence and a new adult life; yet even the ones who are not locked down are not allowed to have a coffee with their fledgling new pals (that’s just a rule for students, you understand, not for every other teenager). When the whole COVID thing started, of course no one knew what to do – planning, in the immediate face of this unprecedented phenomenon – was instinctive and rightly risk averse. Months and months have passed now and it’s still as if everything’s being decided at a moment’s notice. Wasn’t it pretty clear that if you bring together tens of thousands of excited new students that the ‘six people from two households’ rule might take a bit of a battering? If all the teaching is online, why not tell them simply not to come until it’s possible for them to have some semblance of a ‘normal’ student life (breakfast; finish essay; coffee; lecture; lunch; brief bit of studying; coffee; tutorial; open a book; be persuaded to go for drink, probably by someone whom, you erroneously believe, fancies you.) Well, I know the universities are in trouble too, but it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that all these kids are locked up in Glasgow and Dundee and Edinburgh because the universities need their money in fees and accommodation charges. Let’s not forget their parents too; the singer Dar Williams sums it up – ‘It’s the end of the summer/When you send your children to the moon’.
It’s all part of a pattern that’s placed our young people far down the list of COVID priorities, both in terms of their education, and in terms of their well-being. We all know that our kids seem to be increasingly stressed and unhappy; we know that lots of them don’t eat and cut themselves and are on anti-depressants. We know that young people from deprived backgrounds don’t thrive educationally. So what do we do? We start by shutting schools – which for many, many children are places of safety and warmth, and, apart from anything else, are places where they learn. We pretend that they can be educated online, or through ‘blended’ systems, when this was obviously going to be something which only more able, better resourced children would manage. Then we frighten our older teenagers by cancelling their exams and inflicting results by algorithm. Then we change our minds, wasting teachers’ time along the way. Meanwhile their older brothers and sisters are rewarded for their hard work by being locked down at university and threatened with expulsion if they go for a beer. Jeez.
It’s time to be proportionate and to ease education and the other needs of our young people back up the league table. We seem to be pretending that our teenagers are blessed (!) with the attributes of middle age – patience, length of vision, decisiveness, maturity, and all these other dull things that suddenly afflict as a result of work and family. We seem to be forgetting what’s great about being young – to have less of a burden to carry, to take risks, to be an idealist, to have friendship at the centre of your heart. So it must become a priority for government, for schools and universities, for…adults, to work out ways of ameliorating the necessary Covid curbs to prioritise the needs and personal happiness of our young people, and – with a harder edge – to ensure that they can learn as effectively as possible. My grandmother, Jeannie Wyllie was a generous women, apt to send her student grandson a fiver now and then (a fiver! In 1976! Bless!) ; I still have some of the letters that accompanied these glorious gifts and she says, over and over again ‘Remember, you’re only young once.’ That’s something we all need to be remembering these days.