Leaving Home

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

I took the photo above in Coventry (West Midlands) in 1979, depicting an interesting contrast of ancient and modern. The building on the right is what remains of the Whitefriars Monastery, which has survived because it became Coventry’s workhouse during the nineteenth century.

On the left, next to the monastic remains, the city’s elevated Inner Ring Road sails past, with a modern office tower in the background. Ironically, since I took the photo, the modern tower seems to have been demolished, while the ancient Whitefriars building looks just the same now as it did then.

I first left my parents’ home in Scarborough, to live independently in Coventry, almost exactly forty years ago today, during the first week of October 1978, and the scene shown above was just one of many extraordinary sights that greeted me after I arrived in a new city.

A Memorable Day

For most of us, the day when we leave our parents’ home and start living independently is likely to be a memorable one. That was certainly true for me, although it was an event that I’d somewhat feared until it actually happened.

When I did finally make the move, I found it to be wonderful. A whole new world seemed to open up for me, and I never wanted to return to living with my parents!

To College or Not

For those who go on from school to university, their first experience of independent living is likely to be as undergraduates in college “dorms” (halls of residence). However, back in the 1970s, when I reached that age, only about 10% of Britain’s young people went on from school to university, so that experience was available only to a minority. (The situation is drastically different now.)

In those days, there were no universities in our home town of Scarborough, so, for me, going to college would inevitably involve living somewhere else. The nearest universities were in York and Hull, but even those were not sufficiently close to allow daily commuting.

The Stay-at-Home Who Didn’t

As my younger brother and I were growing up, it seemed that I was usually the “stay-at-home”, whereas he seemed to be the more “adventurous” one, who was thought to be more likely to leave.

The idea that I might one day “go away to university” was first suggested to me by my mother when I was about 8 years old. I really didn’t like the sound of that, to the extent that she had to assure me, explaining that, when my father went away to Teacher Training College, he had really enjoyed the experience. (She failed to add that, when my father went away to that college, he was about 40 years old!)

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

The photo above shows (left-right) my mother, our dog Meg, my brother and me, staying at home!

Artificial Limitations

In 1977, I was preparing to sit my Advanced-Level examinations, and it was time to start thinking seriously about what I would do after leaving school. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that I would continue my education at a university. Personally, I wasn’t so sure, and in any case, what would I study and where?

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that, thanks to poor career advice, I decided to apply for Civil Engineering degree courses. (With the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, that decision seems even more ludicrous!) Some universities offered a more general Engineering Science degree, in which you could opt for a Civil Engineering specialty before graduation.

I interviewed at and received offers from four universities, and, on the basis of my experience during the interviews, I eventually decided to accept an offer from the University of Warwick (located in Coventry).

I was the first in my family even to apply to a university, so I had absolutely no guidance as to how to choose between the offers. I seem to remember that my final decision was made on the basis of the landscape in each campus, which is actually quite a poor basis for making such an important decision!

I still hadn’t really grasped the fact that I had committed to moving nearly 200 miles away in the near future. However, as the date of the first term drew closer, I warmed to the idea of getting away from the depressing environment in Scarborough.

Expanded Horizons

During the first weekend of October 1978, my parents drove me to the Halls of Residence at Warwick University, helped me get my suitcases into my room, then left me to it.

Any sense of trepidation that I experienced at that moment soon evaporated, as I began to discover the new freedom of independent living!

Of course, the fact that most of my fellow students were experiencing the same epiphany was tremendously helpful, because we could “compare notes” regarding the best places to shop or hang out. Very few of us could afford cars, so we were mostly reliant on public transport. Fortunately, the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (WMPTE—which we referred to as “Wumpity”) and the Midland Red company provided comprehensive bus services, so we were able to get to most places that we needed to visit. Even so, bus travel wasn’t necessarily always pleasant, as illustrated by my view below of Coventry’s Pool Meadow Bus Station one snowy winter morning.

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

For longer journeys, British Rail offered “Student Railcards” that provided a 50% discount on standard fares, making rail travel quite cheap.

An Exciting City

Before I began living there, all that I really knew about Coventry was that it had famously been “blitzed” during World War II, which had destroyed much of the city center. By the time that I arrived there, most of the bombed sites had been redeveloped, and the central area presented a pleasant, neat and modern appearance, as shown below in my view of Broadgate Square from the tower of the bombed-out cathedral.

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Although British industry was already in decline in those days, Coventry was nonetheless still very much an engineering center (which was largely what had made it such a tempting target for the Luftwaffe).

Many local engineering companies gave professional presentations on their newest developments, and as a student, I received invitations to those. For me as an aspiring engineer and transport enthusiast, it was very exciting to be able to go along and listen to discussions of new vehicles and other technical advances! For example, one evening the commercial vehicle manufacturer Metro-Cammell Weymann gave a presentation on their new Metrobus in the Hotel Leofric (on the right in the photo above), and I went along not only for the talk, but also for the free “wine and cheese”!

Clipped Wings

Sadly, as I’ve related in previous posts, my first year at Warwick did not go well academically, largely because of the traumatic events that were occurring in our family at around that time. (I even visited the University’s Student Counselor, in the hope that she would have sympathy for my situation and offer me some kind of “deferment”, but she clearly had no interest in such things.) I was forced to drop out of the course at the end of that year, which at the time seemed like a disaster (but as things turned out, was for the best).

Knowing that I was going to have to leave university lodgings, I made some effort in Spring 1979 to try to find a job in Coventry, but received very negative responses. (Later, such attitudes would not have deterred me, but I was too inexperienced at that time to persevere.) Thus, it seemed that I had no choice but to return to my mother’s home in Scarborough (my father having died in April 1979).

A Commitment to Leaving

As related in an earlier post, I ended up obtaining an office job in Scarborough and living with my mother there for about 18 months, before returning to university, this time further away—in London—but with ultimate success.

Despite my “false start”, my mind was made up from those first few weeks in Coventry, that, whatever it took, I would move away from Scarborough and forge my own independent life.

Of course, I still had no desire at that time to move to another continent, which I in fact did within 10 years. Nonetheless, the seed of the idea that ultimately led to my being here, now, was planted on the day that I left home.

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

The Value of University


The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

What is the “value of a degree”? We frequently see articles in the media engaging in hand-wringing about the “value of a degree” or the “value of university”. Many such articles make questionable assumptions about the meaning of the word “value”. The real value of a degree, and of the university experience, to any individual, depends on many factors, including the skills, goals and personality of the individual.

There’s the frequently-unspoken question of whether the “value” of the qualification is purely financial, or else has less tangible value to the person possessing it. Do you just treat your entire future life as some kind of balance sheet, where you offset the cost of obtaining the degree against the extra earnings that you think it may bring you? What, also, of the value of the experience of obtaining the degree, and the skills learned during that process?

Finally, there’s the issue of the quality of the institution granting the so-called degree. These range from world-leading universities with established track records, to “Mickey Mouse” colleges that seem to be operating mostly for easy money rather than through any commitment to the furtherance of knowledge.

Each individual must evaluate his or her personal situation, but, as the first member of my family ever to have gone to university, I offer here my own experiences and reflections.

My Own Experience

Thunder over South Kensingtion, 1981. View over Imperial College and Knightsbridge Barracks

Thunder over South Kensington, 1981. View over Imperial College and Knightsbridge Barracks

In my case, I enjoyed learning for its own sake, and discovering more about how the universe works. (I realize that most of the population do not seem to share this view.)

Despite subsequent disappointments and unanticipated setbacks, I’m glad that I went to university and got the degree that I did. I would not have regretted it even if my degree had not led to better jobs.

Non-Academic Benefits

There are also many benefits to the university experience that are not directly related to courses of study, and those who haven’t had the experience often seem completely unaware of these aspects.

I had many non-academic experiences as a student that would simply never have been available to me had I not gone to university. For example, I became involved in the Student Television Club at Imperial College, which led to my meeting and interviewing many celebrities, such as Michael Palin, Sir Cliff Richard, Paul Eddington, Gordon Jackson, Sir David Attenborough, and so on. What chance would I ever have had to do any of that otherwise?

Now, in response to my comments, some people would point out that “It’s easy for you to say that”, because my degree was free to me, and I even got a grant for my living expenses. Although that was generally true for undergraduate students in Britain at that time, it wasn’t necessarily true for me when I decided to return to university after taking two years “out” in industry. There was no guarantee that I could obtain a grant for the year that the authorities considered “wasted”, although in the end I was persuasive. I do concede, though, that the threat of a long-term financial burden might have made me think again.

I realize that I was incredibly lucky to have obtained my degree free of any financial burden. Whenever I’m feeling how unfair life can be, I always try to remind myself of my good fortune in that regard!

I was also lucky to obtain a place in one of the world’s top ten universities. I must admit that the value of qualifications from low-caliber universities is more questionable.

Learning to Discover

The university academic experience also has benefits beyond what you actually learn while there. My university studies taught me how to do research and how to develop original ideas, which has led to my making many innovations and inventions. Some of the inventions have been patented, and I continue to strive to innovate today in the fields that interest me.

Summary & Recommendations

Queens Tower, Imperial College, in snow, 1981

Queens Tower, Imperial College, after a snow shower, 1981

Despite the financial concerns, my recommendation would be to try not to view obtaining a degree in purely mercenary terms. If you view the value of a degree and of university experience as being purely financial, then you’ll be missing out on many other tangible benefits.

In my case, one reason that I chose to go back to university after working in industry for a few years was because I realized that, the longer I waited, the more difficult it would become to return and obtain a degree. I decided that, if I went back and graduated, then, even if my qualification turned out to be less useful than I’d anticipated, the worst that would happen would be that I’d wasted a couple of years of my life. On the other hand, if I didn’t go back, I’d continue to be shut out of many jobs that I was quite capable of doing, and I’d never be able to get those years back.

After all, life is not a mechanical process where you press “Start” and then go through a mindless sequence of predictable operations, which inevitably will only culminate in your death. Surely, it’s just as important to enjoy each stage as much as you can, and it’s about appreciating the journey at least as much as the final destination.