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Teddy Jamieson: University will shape your life but, sometimes, you meet the people who will change your life

Teddy Jamieson with his wife-to-be Jean, the second-year student he met in the kitchen of his halls of residence in 1982 just three days after arriving
Teddy Jamieson with his wife-to-be Jean, the second-year student he met in the kitchen of his halls of residence in 1982 just three days after arriving

It has been 40 years now. More than half a lifetime. Sometimes much more, as I know all too well. But every September, as the days begin to shorten, I find myself thinking back to the moment that changed my life. The moment I went to university.

September 11, 1982. A Saturday. My parents drove me from our home on the north coast of Northern Ireland to the ferry in Larne, away from a country still in the bloody midst of violence, then up through Galloway and Ayrshire, Musical Youth on the car radio, skirting Glasgow and onto Stirling.

There they deposited me, my few books, my bad haircut and flared trousers in a small, white-walled cell of a room in Geddes Court, a student hall rumoured to be based on a Swedish prison (which must have been news to the architects RMJM, who later went on to work on the Scottish Parliament building and the Falkirk Wheel).

I had not long turned 19, was shy, spotty, a bit nerdy, utterly unworldly. I spent the first night locked away in that room, watching the tiny black and white TV I’d brought with me, horrified to realise BBC Scotland showed Sportscene rather than Match Of The Day. I didn’t know anything about Scottish football. Frankly, I felt sorry for myself and a little lonely.

That didn’t last. Within a few days I’d made friends who would last a lifetime. As many did before me and continue to do so in universities up and down the land. Right now there are young men and women settling into new student accommodation, self-consciously finding their feet in a new environment. I kind of envy them.

Students fear being unable to continue studies as lack of accommodation and cost of living crisis bites

Sometimes, it seems, no one has a good word to say about students. So often the butt of jokes (before Alan Partridge became a household name, Steve Coogan made his career in the early-1990s with the character Paul Calf who hated students; a routine loved by students, of course) and sneering attacks by politicians and social commentators. The current Westminster government has started targeting what it calls ­ “low-value” degrees and, as is its way, is keen to judge outcomes on a strictly monetary scale (ie graduate salaries).

For those who only think in numbers, it is maybe worth pointing out that Scottish universities alone make a multi-billion-pound contribution to the UK economy (£15.3 billion in 2019/20) and that, for every 1,000 graduates, the Scottish government can look forward to an additional £22.4 million in income tax contributions.

But that’s not the real value of a university education. It’s a time in life where education is mixed up with life experience, a fleeting window where you get to be young and foolish but also explore what interests you, to learn for the sake of learning, to pick up life skills, to be given a privileged opportunity to begin the transition to adult life (many, after all, don’t get that chance to ease themselves into it).

Teddy Jamieson as a student

If anything, it was possibly easier being a student back in the 1980s. Not only was our education paid for by the state, we were also given grants to live on. Some of that grant even went on textbooks (though I wouldn’t imagine it was a huge amount percentage-wise).

And, yes, students behaved badly. Sex and drugs (though back then it was mostly cannabis and magic mushrooms; I was far too uptight to really go for either) and some rock and roll (well, New Order played the Pathfoot building on campus once).

Is that still the case? Being a student has changed dramatically over the past 40 years. Technology has transformed how they are taught (no one writes essays in longhand any more, I’m guessing). Finances are tighter and many have to work to support their education. But that hasn’t changed how students spend their free time, as anyone who lives near a campus could tell you. Be young, be foolish, be happy. None of those things are a crime.

The truth is, if you’re lucky enough to go to university you will be shaped by the experience. Or sometimes you meet the people who will shape you.

I did, on my third day in Geddes Court. There was a girl in the student kitchen. She was smoking and swearing and wearing a scarf. She came from Denny. I thought she had said Derry, but her accent definitely wasn’t Northern Irish. She was a second-year student. Her name was Jean. She was this lifeforce that I was immediately drawn to. I’m not sure what she could possibly have seen in me but a few weeks later we became a couple. We didn’t know it then, but we would spend the rest of her life together.

By the time I left Stirling University in 1986 I still wasn’t a grown-up but I had grown a bit. It would take me a few years and a few careers to find my feet. But Stirling was a beginning. When I go back to the campus now it has transformed massively. But the ghost of my younger self is always lurking somewhere nearby. When I catch a glimpse of him he looks happy.

Teddy Jamieson

I feel for students now. Most leave uni dragging a weight of debt that hangs over them, though many may not earn enough to ever pay it back. But hopefully all those first-year students who are now ready to start their new life this autumn will have some fun, make some new friends and old mistakes, learn something useful or at least interesting and begin the journey into adulthood.

Coincidentally, this year, on or around the 40th anniversary of my first day at Stirling Uni, I moved house. After some 20 years in the same place, my daughter and I packed all our worldly belongings and travelled, oooh, at least half a mile up the road to our new home. All house moves can be melancholy, but I’d not really prepared myself for quite how hard this one would hit me. This new home was the first one I’d moved to since 1984 (a freezing cold student flat in Stirling) that Jeanie didn’t make the move with me. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and passed away in 2019. The third anniversary of her death is next month. Sometimes you can have too many anniversaries.

New beginnings and old memories wind tight around each other. Inevitably, I’ve been thinking a lot of late about that 19-year-old sweary girl I met all those years ago. And thinking fondly of the place that brought us together.

Geddes Court has long since been pulled down. Stirling University is an ever-changing, expanding campus, now renowned for helping shape Scotland’s sporting future stars. But in some ways it hasn’t changed.

It remains what all universities are and always have been; an incubator of knowledge and experience in a hopefully safe environment. It’s not only young people who go to university, but it’s made for them. May everyone starting uni this autumn have the time of their life. I know I did.