“Education isn’t what you learn, it’s what you do with what you learn.” Anon.

degreeThere’s been quite a bit in the news again recently about the value of a university education, after George Osbourne, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the scrapping of maintenance grants from the 2016/17 academic year. From that date, grants will be replaced by loans, adding yet further to the financial loan burden that university students are already facing to pay their tuition fees through loans. These financial challenges are making some (or is it many?) prospective students question whether they really do want or need a university education. Add to that the pressure on prospective students to study a subject that ‘should contribute’ more effectively to society and the economy, it’s no wonder that students are beginning to have second thoughts about going to university.

Also, with the publication of this year’s university exam results, the issue of grade creep is once again on the political agenda, since more than 50% of all students have graduated with a so-called ‘good’ degree. In the UK, this is a First or Upper Second (2:1) Class degree.

So why have these issues now attracted my attention?

Life on the south coast
Early July 1970. Forty-five years! It’s hard to believe. Yes, it’s forty-five years since I graduated from the University of Southampton with a BSc degree (not a very good one, I’m afraid) in Environmental Botany and Geography. There again, no-one in my year gained a First in botany, only a couple in geography. They didn’t hand out many top degrees in those days. More than 70% of students today are awarded a First or Upper Second. What is interesting from my point of view is during my high school years, going to university was not a foregone conclusion, or even an expectation for that matter. However, a university education was something that my post-war generation did begin aspire to. I was only the second person in my family to attend university.

55 Ed & Mike

Graduation Day, July 1970 at the University of Southampton, with my Mum and Dad, Lilian and Fred Jackson. Was I ever that young looking?

Now, although I didn’t exactly excel academically at Southampton, I wouldn’t have traded those three undergraduate years for anything. Some of the best years I have ever spent. Ah, the enthusiasm of youth. Did I ever have second thoughts? Never. I was extremely fortunate that my parents were very supportive, even though it must have been hard financially for them at times. My elder brother Ed had (in 1967) just graduated from the London School of Economics (with a First in geography) when I started at Southampton. So my parents were faced with another three years of support, even though my tuition fees were paid by the state, and I did receive a maintenance grant which Mum and Dad had to top up.

I guess I was lucky that Southampton took me in the first place, and didn’t throw me out after my first year. I never was very good at taking exams, well not in those school and undergraduate years. I only found my métier once I’d moved on to graduate school in 1971.

I went for an admissions interview at Southampton in early 1967 and immediately knew that this was where I wanted to study at, if they offered me a place. So once I received the results from my high school A-level exams (in biology, geography, and English literature, but not quite what I’d hoped for, grades-wise) I was on tenterhooks for a couple of weeks waiting for a response from the university. I was earning some cash, working as a lorry (truck) driver’s mate for a company based in Leek called Adams Butter. We delivered processed butter to retail outlets all over the UK, often being away from home for several nights at a stretch. Then once we delivered our load of about 25 tons of butter, we would head to the nearest port to pick up another 25 tons of Australian or New Zealand ‘raw’ butter, in large 56 lb frozen packs. I soon got fit throwing those boxes around.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I arrived back at the depot after a long day on the road, and my father had kindly left a brief message with the dispatcher on duty: “Southampton wants you!” Obviously elated, I began to make plans to start my university life in October. The rest is history.

Back to the Midlands
Having graduated, I still didn’t know what the next stage of my life held. I’d applied to The University of Birmingham for a place on its newly-established MSc course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources in the Department of Botany. In February 1970 I’d been interviewed by course director Professor Jack Hawkes, and was offered a place, but with no guarantee of any financial support. It wasn’t until mid-August that I received a phone call confirming that he had been able to secure a small maintenance grant (just over £6 a week for the whole year, equivalent to about £80 a week today) and payment of my tuition fees. Undaunted at the prospect, I quickly accepted. And what a joy studying at Birmingham was. I certainly found an area of plant sciences that I could really immerse myself in, the staff were (on the whole) inspiring (particularly Trevor Williams with whom I completed my thesis), and I knew that I’d made the right choice.

But still there was no guarantee of gainful employment in my chosen field. That is until Jack Hawkes invited me to consider a one-year position in Peru. As things turned out, I did make it to Peru, registered for a PhD (which I completed in 1975), and made a career for myself in international agricultural research and academia. I received my degree from the Chancellor of the University, Sir Peter Scott, renowned ornithologist and conservationist, and son of ill-fated Antarctic explorer, Captain Scott at a graduation ceremony at the University of Birmingham on 12 December 1975.

20 Ed & Mike

Graduation on 12 December 1975, with Professor Jack Hawkes on my right, and Dr Trevor Williams on my left. I’m with my Mum and Dad in the two photos above.

Was it worth it?
When I decided to study botany at university I had no idea whether this would lead to a worthwhile career. Actually, it was not something I considered when applying. I just knew I wanted to study plants and geography, and then I’d see what life had in store for me afterwards, assuming I did actually graduate.

Steph studied botany at Swansea University (BSc 2:1), and we met at Birmingham when she studied for her MSc (also in genetic resources conservation) in 1971-72.

1972 002 Steph MSc

Steph’s MSc graduation in December 1972. This was about three weeks before I headed off to Peru. Steph joined me there in July 1973, and we were married in Lima in October that same year. We both had considerably longer hair then – and darker!

I think there was more expectation that our daughters, Hannah and Philippa, would go on to university, from our point of view and theirs. Indeed, having had the advantage of attending an international (and quite competitive) school in Manila, and studying for the International Baccalaureate diploma, university was the logical next step. And they both chose psychology (with an anthropology minor)—it wasn’t planned that way, that’s how it turned out.

Hannah originally started her university years at Swansea University in 1996, but after two years she transferred to one of the top liberal arts colleges in the USA: Macalester College in St Paul, and graduated BA summa cum laude in 2000 (left below, with the gold tassel). She then went on to the University of Minnesota to complete her PhD in industrial and organizational psychology in September 2006 (right below).

Philippa joined Durham University in 2000, and graduated in 2003 with her BSc (2:1) Honours degree (left below). After spending a year in Canada, she returned to the UK in 2004 and spent six months of more searching for a job. Eventually she secured a Research Assistantship in the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne. After a couple of years she decided to register for a PhD and she was awarded her doctorate in December 2010 (right below).

So we’ve all benefited from having attended university, and have gone on to have successful careers. But I still believe it was the overall experience of university life as much as the academics that contributed those benefits. Unlike students today, we were fortunate not to have racked up significant debts while studying, and already Hannah and Philippa and their spouses are making plans for college education for their children—should they opt to follow that option.

I think the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) are appropriate and as good today as when he wrote them in his essay ‘The Idea of a University’ in 1852: If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society… It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.

I’m not sure that we do achieve those lofty ideals today as perhaps they aspired to in Newman’s day. There are just so many students moving through the system, the pressures to achieve are greater. While I was teaching at The University of Birmingham (for a decade in the 1980s) I became even more convinced that a university education is, in itself, worthwhile. This is often the first time that a young person leaves home, and has the opportunity to grow up away from the ever-watchful eyes of parents. Not everyone takes to university it must be said. But I think the majority who do make it to university would agree that, just like me, the three years they spend studying—and playing—are not three years wasted. It also makes it especially worrying that politicians are increasingly threatening the very existence and roles of universities, as is happening, for example, in a high profile way at the University of Wisconsin.

First impressions: two weeks in 1967

It was the first week of October, or thereabouts. 1967. I was headed to Southampton to begin a three-year undergraduate course in botany and geography at the city’s university.

Like all students in the UK, I’d applied for admission to six courses at different universities: King’s College, London (geography); Aberystwyth (zoology and geography); Southampton (botany and geography); York (biology); Queen Mary College (combined sciences); and Newcastle (botany and geography). I don’t really remember my priority list, but I do know that King’s was my first choice and Southampton was my third. I had interviews at King’s, Southampton, Queen Mary, and York; I never heard from the other two before I made my choice. The interview at York was a disaster. I was asked to describe Krebs Cycle, not something with which I was at all au fait. In fact, at a later date – at Birmingham – I came across something that an obviously bored student had written on a bench in one of the lecture rooms in the School of Biological Sciences: ‘I wouldn’t know Krebs Cycle if it ran me over‘. I couldn’t have agreed more!

Because I’d been off school with flu, I wasn’t able to make interviews at several universities on the dates requested around February or so in 1967, so had to try and reschedule these. My dad and I drove to the various campuses, and in fact ended up visiting York, King’s, and Southampton in the same week! The King’s interview went quite well, and I was offered a place. I can’t remember now who interviewed me, only that he was a Professor of Geography and had taught my elder brother Ed (1964-1967, in the Joint School of Geography between the London School of Economics and King’s).

The day I visited Southampton was a bright sunny day, and even warm for that time of the year. In those days, the Department of Geography was housed in the Hartley Building (which also housed the library and various administrative departments), and I had a 1 hour interview with Dr Joyce Lambert* from the Department of Botany and Dr Brian Birch from Geography. The interview must have gone well because a few weeks later I received a conditional offer in the post. My place at Southampton was guaranteed if I received the necessary exam grades.

I accepted that offer. In fact, almost as soon as I walked through the front door of the Hartley Building I knew I would accept an offer from Southampton. I just had this immediate feeling of well-being. And my instinct didn’t let me down. I had three wonderful undergraduate years there.

In the late 60s, Southampton was still quite a small university, with only about 4500 undergraduates. After all it had received its own charter only in 1952; prior to that its degrees had been awarded by the University of London. Today there are more than 16,000, and the expansion has been phenomenal over the past 45 years since I graduated. A medical school opened not long after I graduated, and the botany department merged with other life sciences and moved to another campus location about a mile away. The Centre for Biological Sciences is now back on the main campus.At the end of my first year, in 1968 or early 1969, the geography department (now geography and environment) moved to a new building (part of that late 60s expansion that benefitted Southampton), but is now housed in the Shackleton Building, actually the old botany building 44 where I studied for three years.

However, to return to that first week in 1967. I may have difficulties these days remembering what I did last week, but my early memories of Southampton are crystal clear.

The tower block of South Stoneham House. I had a room on the west-facing sixth floor (shown here from Woodmill Lane) in my first year, and a south-facing room on the 13th floor in my second year. This block, constructed in the 60s, has been decommissioned because of an asbestos problem.

I was lucky to secure a place in one of the halls of residence, South Stoneham House, and had sent a trunk with clothes and other belongings on ahead of my arrival. The Students Union had organised a special train from London Waterloo to carry new undergraduates – or Freshers – to Southampton, and arrange transport at the other end to everyone’s accommodation. I stopped with my brother Ed for a couple of nights in London. He had just started his first job after graduating from LSE that summer. I bought his bicycle and on the day of my train to Southampton, I hopped on that bike and rode it through the rush hour traffic from his flat in Kilburn across the Thames to Waterloo. I left it at the station and returned to the flat to collect my suitcase. At Waterloo I retrieved my bike from the Left Luggage office, deposited it on the train and then searched for a seat. In those days, railway carriages were generally not open plan as they are today, but had a corridor down one side and compartments with seat for eight passengers. I remained close friends with three of the other seven in that compartment for the rest of my time at Southampton, and have kept in touch with one, Neil Freeman, ever since. We were even assigned rooms on the same floor at South Stoneham House.

Neil studied law, and in fact my close circle of friends was generally outside either botany or geography. Another law student who became a good friend was Malcolm Forster. I did lose contact with him but did come across his name a couple of years ago and briefly made contact then. Recently, however, he came across one of my blog posts and left a comment.

They often say that first impressions last longest. Well, these two in February and October 1967 certainly remained with me. Choosing Southampton over other universities was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Three great years, and good friendships. What more can you ask for?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
* Who received the nickname ‘Blossom’ from several generations of botany students.

“There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man”.

So said – or words to that effect – an army officer named Ludlow during Oliver Cromwell’s campaign of persecution throughout Ireland between 1649 and 1653.

And what was he referring to? The Burren – located in the west of Ireland, in County Clare, and one of the most impressive – and ostensibly bleak – landscapes anywhere. I have visited Ireland three times, and each time I made a beeline for the Burren.¹

The Burren is a landscape of limestone pavement, or karst, one of the largest expanses of such in Europe, covering an area of more than 200 km². The Burren National Park – the smallest in Ireland – covers an area of only 1500 ha. Although ‘devoid of trees, water and soil’, it is nevertheless an incredibly biodiverse environment, with an impressive array of wildlife.

Dryas octopetala

Botanically, the Burren is fascinating, with Arctic-alpine plants growing alongside those more typical of the Mediterranean, as well as both lime-loving (calcicole) and acid-loving (calcifuge) species. One of the signature species of the Burren is the mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) which is found throughout the Alps and far into the north of Europe. But here on the Burren it grows almost at sea level. There is also an impressive list of orchids that have been recorded here.

The Burren attracts many tourists wishing to have a special ‘botanical experience’ to discover all manner of plants among the grikes and clints of the limestone pavement. And it was in July 1968 that I first visited the Burren, participating in an end of first year undergraduate field course from the University of Southampton. Based in the small town of Lisdoonvarna (famous for its annual matchmaking festival), the course was led by tutors Mr Leslie Watson (a plant taxonomist) and Dr Alan Myers (a plant physiologist/ biochemist). We were a small group of only about 19 students who had survived the end of year exams when several of our colleagues who had failed were required to withdraw from the university. There were no re-sits in those days! The group included four students (including me) studying for a combined degree in botany and geography, and one zoology student who would continue with botany as a subsidiary subject into his second year. The others were all ‘single honours’ students in botany.

Spending two weeks on the west coast of Ireland could have been a disaster, weather-wise. But how fortunate we were. Almost two weeks of perfect sunny and warm days. Apart from several days exploring the Burren – in clear weather and in fog! – we had day trips to the mountains of Connemara, along the beaches close to Lisdoonvarna (where I did a short project on brown algae), and a ‘free day’ to search for ‘Kerry diamonds‘ – actually quartz crystals – on the Dingle Peninsula, about 100 miles south of Lisdoonvarna.

Close to Lisdoonvarna are the spectacular Cliffs of Moher², rising over more than 120 m from the Atlantic Ocean – next stop North America! Part of our interest was to look for fossils in the shale layers that make up the cliffs.

But all work and no play makes Jack(son) a dull boy. We had plenty of opportunity of letting our hair down. Every day when we returned from the field we were pleased to see a line of pints of Guinness that had been already been poured in readiness for our arrival, around 5 pm. In the evening – besides enjoying a few more glasses of Guinness – we enjoyed dancing to a resident fiddler, Joseph Glynn, and a young barmaid who played the tin whistle. Since I had spent the previous year learning folk dancing, I organized several impromptu ceilidhs.

Joseph Glynn of Limerick, July 1968

Joseph Glynn of Limerick, July 1968

All too soon, our two weeks were over, and we headed back to Dublin via Limerick to catch the boat train from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead and on to our homes from there. We arrived in Holyhead in the early morning, and I had to travel to Stoke-on-Trent where my parents would pick me up. Leslie Watson also came from Leek, and we were headed in the same direction together as he was taking the opportunity of visiting his parents there. I remember that we cheered ourselves up around 6 am or so on Crewe station, taking a wee dram from a ‘smuggled’ bottle of raw poteen, a traditional spirit distilled from potatoes or grain, whose production was outlawed and remained illegal until the 1990s.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
¹ Landscapes photos of the Burren used from Wikipedia under its Creative Commons licences – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Burren, where all attributions are filed.
² Photos of the Cliffs of Moher used from Wikipedia under the respective Creative Commons licences – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliffs_of_Moher, where all attributions are filed.