Just Add Water…

4th October 2008

As colleges and universities across the country settle into the autumn term, Heather Harris looks at student life in the 21st century.

Pot Noodles. Two words that changed the face (and stomachs) of student life. Previously, ‘Dial M for Mother’ was the only way the college population survived, with ‘300 ways with mince’ being dictated down the phone lines of Britain.

And ‘cutting and pasting’ was ‘cutting and posting’ (no computer in sight) as concerned parents lovingly found articles in Good Housekeeping or Woman’s Own on ‘How to live on cabbage’ and put them in the second class mail.

Certainly at my Polytechnic, the queue for the Halls of Residence payphone was constantly longer than the one for the rollercoaster at Legoland, as students called the 24 hour Parental Recipe Hotline. One 40-something ex-student of my acquaintance recalls, “I remember calling my Mum in a panic after trying to mash potatoes without draining the water out first, and ending up with boiling hot wallpaper paste!”, while another couldn’t find the way into a baked apple. “I knew at home they ended up with jam in the middle but never realised you had to take the core out first.”

Sadly, our instant ‘just add water’ culture has taken away this burning need for students to stay in touch with their family back home. It may seem a minor point but it sums up a widening gulf between today’s students and their parents.

“It’s now so much easier to be independent at an earlier age, as everything is much more convenient. Students don’t just have washing machines they have dryers too!”, Bob Cotton, father of a second year Chemistry student told me. No more standing in steamy launderettes being mesmerised by the sight of other people’s smalls; no more struggling home at the weekend with a rucksack full of rotting rugby kit.

“When these practical reasons to stay in touch are taken away it becomes very easy to quickly lead separate lives,” he added.

Kate Green agrees. A mother of two young adults, she has a daughter in her final year at Bristol and a son backpacking around Thailand.

“From my daughter I get texts (usually in the middle of the night) when she’s upset – usually about her love life. With my son I get nothing, then a drunken call from a Thai beach wanting to discuss the lack of purpose in his life!”

Kate found an extreme gender difference in the amount of contact from her son and her daughter.

“Boys can now communicate without having to actually speak. They can alleviate their guilt by e-mailing and texting, so I can go for months without actually hearing his voice!” she observed. With girls you get both, in her experience.

“My daughter still likes an occasional chat, and if she’s ever ill I get her friends ringing me up to tell me which is great…”

Kate is lucky. Clearly she is one of the dwindling numbers of parents who can actually still understand the teenage generation. According to the charity, Parentline Plus, there is increasing evidence of a new language being spoken by teenagers when kept together in captivity. And it’s reached such a level of incomprehension that the organisation has introduced an online dictionary of ‘teenglish’ to help ‘rents (parents) from feeling ‘on their jays’ (alone).

Ironically, no longer is it students calling Mum for help 24 hours a day. Parents are now flooding the charity’s free helpline with pleas for assistance in understanding their offspring.

“I used to find his texts confusing. Now even when he does open his mouth I don’t understand that either!” said Helen Gray, whose two sons have just returned to Birmingham University.

The teenglish dictionary features as part of a new website (www.gotateenager.org.uk) that advises parents on all sorts of issues – from sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to how internet chat rooms work. As Nikola Mann, who helped create the site, said: “The key to a good relationship between parents and teenagers is communication and the jargon buster is all about improving that”

Luckily there are ‘three little words’ that sound the same to all generations. And students seem to have no problem uttering them to their parents at regular intervals… “I need money”.

A 2008 survey by the National Union of Students (NUS) and HSBC found that prospective students tend to underestimate their spending, which spells trouble for the state of their future finances. ‘The student’s total underestimation of their weekly spending amounted to just under £20 – a sizeable amount on a student budget.’

Interestingly, when asked to estimate the cost of six staple grocery items – bread, milk, pasta, beans, cheese, rice and sausages – students tended to think they cost more. But they forgot that, like cars, their stomachs take a surprising amount to fill up. All the 3,500 students questioned underestimated the volume of food (including Pot Noodles) that they would get through. “I thought I’d need to buy one loaf of bread per week and that was all I’d need!” said second year student, Russell Group, who’s definitely wiser now.

The need to put a roof over their heads caused further costly confusion. Clearly influenced by parents’ accusations that they treat their home like a hotel, teenagers from the South assumed rent would be Five Star rates and estimated £90 per week. Those in the North took a more Youth Hostel approach, assuming that £60 would cover it. The reality was somewhere in between, at around £75 per week on average for a half-decent house without those standard student accommodation extras – dereliction order, Health and Safety notice, subsidence and ice on the inside of the windows.

The survey also discovered that concern about finances and debt rose as students progressed through their course, with intermediate and final year students more worried than freshers.

Hardly surprising then that the weekly texts home requesting more money are often upgraded to a personal visit to the parental Bank Manager by Year Three.

Helen Gray agrees. “We hardly set eyes on our kids for their first couple of years, then suddenly they were turning up on the doorstep expecting to be greeted with open arms”… and an open wallet.

Funding for further education changed drastically with the introduction of the Student Loan system. Eligible students now take out a loan each year for all or part of their tuition fees and a further loan to meet living costs. The full amount of both is repayable after graduation or on leaving the course or when annual earnings reach £15,000 or more before tax.

For someone living away from home for the first time taking out a Student Loan means having access to £4,625 per year (£6,475 in London), so students quickly get used to the Good Life (and I don’t mean growing their own carrots).

“It feels like easy money when it only takes five minutes and you get ten grand.” (Russell Group). My own 19 year old nephew, Jack, admitted, “ Everybody just accepts we’re going to get into debt, and you can always get an interest free overdraft from the bank, or a bar job”

Interesting that employment came last in the list!

Listening to him and six of his fellow Manchester Chemistry students when they turned up on my doorstep at midnight on the way back from Wembley Stadium, the generation gulf was staring me in my wrinkled old face. They’re all far more carefree (no CND marches, or tying themselves to railings with their Primark scarves) and materialistic (the cost of their combined mobile phones would cover their annual rent, and thumbs were used to book their train tickets by text. not hitch-hike down the M1).

“You don’t have to pay your loans off until you’re earning so there’s no point in panicking now,” Jack said, adding that his waking day was from 4pm until 4am, so not exactly conducive to part-time employment except as a Bouncer or Cat Burglar.

And this is where the final irony lies. Today’s students may lead separate lives much more quickly than we ever did, but the parental apron strings have never been more elastic.

Where we emerged from our nocturnal noodle-eating days and took one giant step into the big bad world, graduates in 2008 can’t even afford to dip their toes into the housing market. So what do they do.?

Dial P for the Parental Property Line – “Hi remember me? I don’t suppose my old bedroom is still free…?”

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