Kingston University. Freshers Week. I am a 57 year old post-grad “fresher”.
“A grant?” asks a boy, “What does that mean?”
“Well,” I say, almost embarrassed, “I was sort of paid to do my first degree.”.
I’m in a large room with about seventy other students, most of whom are just a few years older than my grand-daughter. We are sitting around large tables on which are placed several 500cl bottles of extra virgin olive oil, distilled malt vinegar, and small plastic receptacles. We are to be taught how to make a salad dressing. The session is called “Make your own and Save Money”. We’ve been told which supermarkets are cheaper, when they reduce their prices, what foods we can freeze, (eggs! who knew! but who would need to do that?), basic money management tools. That bit was good. I mean, good for the youngsters. Not me so much obviously. I’ve been feeding my family on a budget for years. Still, if ever I end up with a surfeit of eggs, I’ll now know to freeze them.
As for making a vinaigrette with ten times more extra virgin olive oil than needed, at considerable expense, and bottles of distilled malt vinegar which is so cheap and astringent that I use it to clean my windows………..well I’ve watched The Apprentice. I think I might be able to guess what went wrong there. I guess that two people who had never dressed a salad were sent to Tesco with a shopping list, and they blew their budget on the olive oil, and knew so little about vinegar that it was all the same to them. It tasted predictably awful. That experiment would have sent the eighteen year old me straight to the chip shop, where the vinegar is comfortably and generously brown and has some sweetness and complexity in the flavour.
The youngsters I am sitting with are open and friendly and ready to chat and are not glued to their mobile phones. It’s been a long day with a smorgasbord of sessions available to us. I’ve done two on IT, and another on “The Big Read”: Kingston University sent all its students a novel to read and discuss. In another earlier session, one on Academic Writing, two girls on my table were texting away while the excellent lecturer was asking what “nomobophobia” meant. The answer was “a fear of being without your mobile phone”. They continued to text on WhatsApp. I had to work with one of them on a little academic exercise. It was difficult holding back on an urge to smack the phones right out of their hands into their bug-eyed faces, but that’s the prerogative of the lecturer, not their fellow student.
“I really like your hair”, says one of the girls at the vinaigrette session. “I’m going to dye my hair blue tonight.” I explain it might be difficult to get the blue dye to take in her brown hair. My hair is grey and it’s no trouble. “How cool to have grey hair”, she says. I laugh. Is it cool to have the wrinkles that go with the grey hair? Will loose skin ever be fashionable?
The boy to my right is a geographical science student, the girl to my left is going to study publishing. They tell me where they live; the boy in a good road in Tolworth, sharing with seven other students, which sounds normal and fun, but the girl had digs in Croydon, and a job in Dominos Pizza in Caterham. Yesterday she had spent 6 hours on a bus between University, her digs and her job. She was living in Croydon because it was cheaper than Kingston. At Dominos they had told her she shouldn’t bother with University, she could have a good career in pizzas.
Something about my even more crumpled face and body language must have conveyed the message that although I was shocked at the distilled malt vinegar, I was appalled at what her University experience might be. I had spoken earlier to some Post-Grads who were looking forward to moving into their as yet unfinished digs at the notorious Cambridge Road Estate. They were going to be paying not far short of a grand a month for the privilege. The unfashionable, heavy-trafficked and troubled parts of Kingston are throwing up new builds for student accommodation at rents that seem over the odds. This girl who was staying in Croydon was paying just under half of that……..but would be spending about a fifth of her waking hours on a bus and her weekends making pizzas.
“It’s ok,”, she said, “I can do stuff on my phone on the bus. It’s only for three years. Why do you look so upset?”.
That’s when I told them what it was like when I went to University in the 1970s. “We had a grant. That means that we were given money by our local authorities to live on, and they paid our tuition fees.”
“They paid your tuition fees? A grant? What country was that?”
“This one!”, I said.”Here!”
“But just in London?”
“No, across the UK. Everywhere.”
“You didn’t have to pay it back?”
“No! Well you earn more so you pay more tax.”
They shook their heads, amazed.
These students don’t know how unlucky they are.
To make up for it, I advised them on how to make an easy and half decent cheap enough salad dressing. Spend a bit of money on some ordinary olive oil and some not too cheap balsamic vinegar. Pour about a tablespoon of oil on your salad leaves, tomatoes, onions etc and about a teaspoon of vinegar. You will get to know how much without measuring, after a few goes. Add a pinch of salt, and pepper if you like. Use a couple of forks if you haven’t got salad spoons, and coat the leaves in your dressing. Taste and adjust. I learnt that at Uni, first time around.