I’ve been trekking round the country with No 1 daughter in order to vet universities. I suppose this is only the fitting precursor to the kind of consumer-rational choice that will power tertiary educational provision – and its concomitant improvement – in years to come, but by golly it seems strange. In my day you simply went to university – or, rather, you didn’t, because only about three people matriculated each year.
I very much liked the look of Birmingham University – unpretentious, unstuffy, good solid campus, splendid bijou art gallery and an excellent line-up of fast-food stalls in the main quad; one was serving ostrich burgers, there was a Thai noodle bar, and at another a fellow was offering North African falafels and tabbouleh. I opted for this, and it was easily the best meal I’ve had so far this year – for an outlay of £4.50. When I got home I waxed enthusiastic and Mrs S said: ‘Oh, yes, the entire street-food thing is huge now, it’s a real alternative culinary culture – very vibrant, full of innovation.’
Miss Borrower liked Brum fine – but seemed more taken by Leeds. I, of course, embarrass her by the very fact of my existence, even though I managed to make things still more cringeworthy by querying the student ambassador who was showing us round three times, after she’d told us that we were standing on top of a basement zone containing three nightclubs, the largest of which had a capacity of 5,000.
But, really, while I absolutely accept that da kidz are going to get pissed, stoned and otherwise incapacitated at “uni” (as they so nauseatingly refer to it), there seems no good reason why this should be institutionalised. Surely there’s something deeply counterintuitive about the same establishment that’s aiming to build brain muscle taking such an active part in wasting it. In my day a hot night out was going to see PF Strawson lecture on Kant’s Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten – after having dropped the obligatory tetragrammaton blotter: LSD soaked into small squares of paper with the name of God in Hebrew written all over them. True, there wasn’t much dancing involved, but we certainly grasped the full force of the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy’s celebrated work “The Bounds of Sense”.
I wanted to check out the food on campus at Leeds – Christ knows there was enough of it, from teensy sushi bars to vast cafeterias – but Miss 9K nixed this. Strolling down the hill, we spotted a branch of Browns occupying a cavernous former bank building (or so I judged from the profusion of granite and porphyry). Ah, Browns! When I was at university there were only two or three of these “all-day brasseries” dishing up posh burgers and ribs in an ambience concocted from blond wood, bentwood chairs and spider plants. Now there are 19 of them, with at least six strategically located close to Russell Group universities. Yes, it seems fair to say that since time out of mind (1973) an elite education in this country has been associated with their signature dish of steak, mushroom and Guinness pie.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and despite the somewhat atrophied Sunday meals I had at Browns – on the rare occasions that one or the other of my parents chipped up to see me – I still have fond memories of the chain. Indeed, what’s not to like about such comfort food as meatballs and pasta, or steak? True, nowadays there are such oddities as chorizo and wasabi incorporated into the menu – but then no one ever said globalisation would be without its downside. Browns’ founder, Jeremy Mogford, has long since sold up to the Bass chain, but I like to think the high standards of employee care that he instituted remain integral.
Certainly, the well-spoken young chap who served us in Leeds had nothing but nice things to say about his job, and admitted ruefully that he’d been “in apron” at Browns for over three years. Given the current level of unemployment, he’d be wise to stay there.
It’s a knowledge-based economy, all right, and I fully embrace it. I see no irony in the government lending my kids thousands of pounds so they can gain an arts degree, then end up hefting broad bean and pea risotto around superannuated financial institutions. But then, as I think I mentioned, I have long transcended the bounds of sense.