First Year in British Universities

Last year’s (2010) shortage of university places merely highlights the growing popularity of higher education amongst the nation’s young, even though for many the lasting burdens of ongoing debt might be more obvious than the benefits of a degree. 

It is true that Britain has moved away from a system of universal, and automatic, grants for undergraduates. Unfortunately this hasn’t been replaced by any arrangements whereby youngsters can realistically maintain themselves. Unlike America with a long established system of campus jobs reserved for students. Student loans, however soft the terms, are still financial obligations that ultimately have to be settled. 

A visit to the bank manager should be high on any first year student’s agenda. A visit to several is better. Discuss terms, find out about overdrafts and, more importantly, find out how much they cost. The Halifax is currently offering interest free overdrafts for the duration (up to 5 years) of a course. Gifts offered for starting an account may well seem attractive, but are they really free? Make sure that the small print has been read and digested before making any commitments. 

Overdrafts will probably not rule out the need for student loans and it is as well to consider, from the start, how to keep these to a minimum. 

A part time job will be a necessary evil for many. Do discuss this with a tutor. Ask how many hours are seen as compatible with a particular course, and ask for help in organizing this. Find out about essay extensions at the earliest opportunity, and how to apply for them. Explain academic commitments to prospective employers and work out a suitable timetable. American employers such as McDonalds can be remarkably flexible once they are aware of a student’s needs. 

All the financial planning in the world amounts to nothing if the basics aren’t in hand. Day to day economies will help to minimize those inevitable loans.

 Find a deal with a mobile phone company, and remember that pay as you go might be more expensive in the short term but bills don’t mount up. One of the hardest lessons for people just starting a life of independence is the fact that bills do not go away until they are paid. Start a Skype account and encourage family and friends to start them too. Use social networking through college internet systems if this is allowed. Keeping in touch is important, but avoiding unnecessary debt is vital. 

Learn a few good housekeeping basics, especially in the kitchen. A bag of rice and a few vegetables go a long way at very little cost if you know what to do with them. When looking for student accommodation make sure that the kitchen is reasonably well equipped and insist on a place with access to a washing machine; launderettes, like takeaway food, cost a fortune. 

Beware of freshers’ week. Don’t be tempted to join clubs and societies willy nilly. If a club is really worth joining it will still be there when you have settled in and are more aware of other commitments. Remember that time is limited and be wary of taking on more responsibilities than you can conveniently handle. All societies have committees and officials and it is surprisingly easy for the unwary to land the job, somebody has to do it after all, and second years know better. It might sound important at the time but could turn into unwelcome, time wasting drudgery. 

Beware too of reading lists; most course books are available in the library. Ask each course leader for guidance on the essential, core, literature.

 Clearly university is a huge commitment in both time and money. Without an equal commitment to work it will just be so much time wasted. In Britain there is often a huge gulf between A level work and a university’s expectations. Talk to lecturers before the first essays are due and find out the differences between degree level standards and school work. This can be an exciting, albeit frightening, experience. The difference between first class and ordinary degrees is often little more than original thought. As British A levels are designed to test knowledge rather than showcase imagination this can be a daunting technique to acquire.   

Ask your National Union of Students representative about local shops and services which offer discounts, especially how to access cheap travel options.

Juggling the conflicting demands of finance and academic work can be very stressful. Counseling services will be available at college; do take advantage of them if things seem to be getting out of control. 

Pace yourself, take a few precautions and, with new found independence, in both life and thought, there is no reason why university should be anything less than a fun filled, and exciting experience.