Home Lifestyle Life at university in the 1980s- an interview with my Mum

Life at university in the 1980s- an interview with my Mum

Life at university in the 1980s- an interview with my Mum

‘we still drank too much, stayed up too late and all shared a political enthusiasm’

As a student going into my final year at university, it has occurred to me just how much has changed in the short time that I have been here- societies have developed or fizzled out; there are new library facilities, new methods of marking. Modules I took last year have been completely removed from the syllabus, whilst modules I was informed would never be taught have been rolled in. There is a multi-million-pound development happening on the main road through my university, instead of popping to the university cafe for a soggy sandwich, next year students will be able to go to Starbucks, Five Guys and do some shopping in a new complex.

This immense change occurring around me, in a such a short amount of time, sparked the question of what university life was like more than two years ago. Let’s say, 30 years?

Yesterday I sat down with my mum, a Law graduate of The University of Birmingham, to talk about her time at university nearly thirty years ago, as she attended from 1985-1988.
The information, in my opinion, was fascinating, and brought up questions surrounding technology, student life, communication, drinking culture and pastoral care.
Whilst there were plenty of things I could not relate to, such as the lack of internet (no Jstor!) and computers, there were some areas that I could share a kinship to, with my mum ending the conversation stating that herself and her university friends still ‘drank too much, stayed up too late and all shared a political enthusiasm’.
With that in mind, here are some major differences, and some similarities of life at university in the 1980s, to university life in 2017.

What did everybody look like?

As you can probably guess, the hairstyles were different, with my mum commenting that big hair was in, as opposed to the sleeker styles of today costing up to hundreds of pounds in the salons. However, I was pleased to hear that students of course were still on a budget, meaning that thrift shopping was in. Oversized jumpers with skinny jeans, headbands, trainers and bold makeup, all surprisingly reminiscent of today! All these claims that fashion is moving forward and we’re all here dressing like our parents!




Deep breath, there was no internet. You couldn’t just google the answer to your thesis question, or skim through countless copies of google books to download and read on the bus, train or anywhere you fancy. There was no such thing as a PowerPoint, if you were lucky, and at a very swish university then you could expect an overhead projector, the type you could slide an image or text onto, yet most of the time was spent with a pen and paper writing down everything the lecturer said. There was no YouTube, no video to break up the monotony of a lecture, you just sat there and listened. In contrast to the rows of mac books in lectures today, people relied on paper. The lack of computers and the internet also meant that you had to hand in your work in person! My mum found out her final degree level by reading it off a list that was stuck to a noticeboard, no student privacy! All submissions were also hand written, no word or auto correct.

So, was it better?

The lack of internet can be seen today as an inhibiter to studies, yet is this only because of our arguable reliance on the abundance of information that is online today? With no laptop and therefore no Facebook it could be argued that students had less distractions and therefore worked harder and more intensely! Yet, the information provided by the internet today is undoubtedly invaluable.

Communication and keeping in touch

What’s WhatsApp when it’s at home? The only methods of communication to home, which were relatively affordable for a student, were written letters and pay phones. ‘You put your money in, put the number in, then waited to be called back’ my mum told me, explaining how she used to talk with her mum during her time at university. Standing in the Student’s Union talking to home is an alien concept to myself, being used to chatting on my mobile from the comfort of my flat.
So, how did people keep in touch with each other at university? As opposed to the multiple friend requests that pour in from relative strangers during fresher’s week, there was no such thing as Facebook in the 1980s. If you lost someone on a night out, then that was it till the morning. Also, in an age where we rely on online payments to buy our tickets from big university events, there was no internet, so no such thing as online payments. You had to hear about events through word of mouth or posters, before also finding out where to buy your tickets from in person.

So, was it better?

In my opinion, the advancements in how we communicate have been beneficial- as people can now hold links with family members in different countries, let along someone down the road from your university. I can now chat to my family whenever I want, through text, images or phone calls!
The positive from this lack of communication devices in the 1980s could be that friendships were much more cemented and possibly stronger, as transient acquaintances were not made on Facebook, how many of your Facebook friends do you actually talk to?
It could also be argued that there was less invasion into people’s lives, with the rise of social media meaning that we now know more and more about each other.
Yet, once again, 2017 seems to win, as technology brings me to closer to my family.

The drinking cultures

‘No one really did shots- or drank vodka- bars had some student nights, meaning cheaper drinks- we mainly drank beer’.
As opposed to our reliance on a bottle of vodka or rum with a cheap mixer, my mum remembers drinking beer with her university friends and chatting.

So, was it better?

I honestly believe it’s not my business to decide! Drinking culture at universities in 2017 can be seen as too outrageous, yet it’s something that one can grow out of. I prefer pubs and bars now, going into my third year, so can relate to my mum’s university approach to drinking. Yet during freshers and my first year at university, I really enjoyed the fast-paced approach to nights out. Also, my mum told me there were disco nights- it was the 80’s after all!


In an age where vast amounts of text can be produced at a fast pace, dissertations during the 1980s were all hand written. There was the option, at my mum’s university, to go down to the student’s union basement and use the typewriters, although, as you can imagine, this process was laborious and full of spelling mistakes and tipex! There was the option to write your dissertation up rough before paying someone to copy it out in a neat and organised format, this would cost you around £30.

So, was it better?

Definitely not! Microsoft Word is the best thing since sliced bread.

Fresher’s Week

There was no official week named Fresher’s at university in the 1980s, however, there was an activity week called ‘Rag Week’, which took place during the summer term, and the activities on offer may seem a little bizarre to modern day students! My mum told me about a challenge fittingly called ‘How Far Can You Get’, which basically involved students seeing how far they could hitchhike their way into Europe without paying for their travel, incredibly safe of course! There were some features of rag week that sounded cool and do share similarities with Freshers. The band Slade played at Birmingham University ‘Rag Week’ when my mum was there, there were also disco nights and an annual rag week magazine containing jokes. Here’s a forum with a few people chatting about rag magazines and rag week. Another feature of Rag Week was that universities partook in activities to raise money for charities, my mum did a sky dive, after two days training- by herself! No tandem parachuting; you were told what to do, and you did it.

So, was it better?

Fresher’s and Rag Week sound relatively similar on the fact that they both focus on having fun, meeting new people, partaking in activities and drinking. The only thing that does sound a bit outdated is ‘How Far Can You Get?!’, but my mum was also in agreement with me that the competition would probably not be permitted to happen at university today. The Rag Mag’s however sound funny and I think that the fact that my mum parachuted for charity, and it was all run through the university is fantastic and something that would only happen today after months and months of planning!

The politics

Believe it or not, university in the 1980s was completely and utterly free of charge! All fees were paid by the government, which, surprisingly, was Conservative. You also had grants, instead of loans, meaning that you were GIFTED money, you did not have to pay it back. The grants were based off the earning of your family, with some people receiving the full amount of around two thousand pounds. My mum remembers, during the time she was in university, going on countless marches to London to petition against the introduction of loans instead of grants. You had to pay back loans! Even though my university fees now reach nearly £30,000 collectively for my three years, whilst I haven’t even kept track of my loans, I do feel some comfort that my mum went and petitioned and tried to stop the introduction of fees. There was also the threat of nuclear war that undoubtedly hung over the 1980s, with the threat of the Cold War only really ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. There was therefore a strong anti-nuclear presence at universities across the UK, something that can be linked to today, as people discuss the threat of unpredictable leaders such as Kim Jong-Un and Trump, alongside their possession of nuclear weapons.

So, was it better?

Money wise, of course! University was free and grants were gifted to you, based on a sophisticated method of gauging your families’ income. However, the universities were not as developed and sophisticated as they are today, although in my opinion, education is a right that should be free. The 1980s had it good. The 1980s did not have it better in the form of nuclear war however, with the Cold War casting an uneasy glow over the decade.

Pastoral Care

With student suicide now at an all-time high, whilst 1 in 3 students suffers from depression or anxiety (or both), I thought I would ask my mum about the pastoral care that was on offer at her university in the 80s.
My mum frowns at this question, thinking, ‘there was a career’s service and student advice- there was also a strong anti-racism campaign, but that was it’. Pastoral care was lacking in the 1980s, there was no security controlled student services email, which students can email mitigating circumstances emails to, any reason had to be handwritten and dropped into a pigeon hole for student services.

‘If I had been suffering from depression and had told someone, I don’t know how they would have reacted, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, it was all new to people’

So, was it better?

In terms of pastoral care, no. Universities have come a long way when it comes to offering advice, guidance and support for students suffering with their mental health. However, sadly, there is still a long way to go, even in 2017 it seems.

Was there any sexism?

Being the youngest of two female siblings and looking up to my mum as a female figure in my life, as she now holds a Law Degree and a Teaching Masters, I had to ask about sexism at university in the 1980s, and whether my mum was ever told that she couldn’t do something because of her gender. ‘I never experienced any direct sexism’ my mum told me, ‘although I cannot speak for everyone, and then raising a family and being a wife was still deemed as an occupation and a very popular one’.
My mum did tell me about the lack of female representation in academic work at the time, with the 1980s being a period where feminist writing, literature and history was gradually being rewritten and revisited.

‘the 1980s was definitely a decade where women were written back into history’

So, was it better?

Although my mum did not experience any direct sexism during her studies, overall, the opportunities for women have undoubtedly improved and grown over the years. A study from the National Archives has found that the level of women employed in the work place has increased over the last 40 years. In 1971, 53% of women were employed, contrasting to 92% of men, as of 2013 there are now 67% of women employed full time. However, as of today, men have consistently higher employment rates than women, applied to all men over the age of 22, graduate age. Yet, higher numbers of married women and mothers are now working, as opposed to the 1980s, with advancements in child care and women waiting until they have established their career to have children. Whilst there is also now the expectation that women can support themselves without the support of a husband financially. Feminist literature and history is also now a module on my history course, all thanks to universities in the 1980s rewriting women back into the history books.

University facilities

Everything was a lot more practical, with my mum calling some of her university buildings ‘functional and dreary’. Today, buildings are catered to technology, with study rooms, interactive white boards, headphone sockets and charging points. At my university in Manchester there is even a sleep pod in the library. University buildings today are much more catered to students to have a comfortable place to learn.


So, was it better?

In terms of the technology on offer, yes. University buildings are comfortable and inviting places to study. However, the constant presence of technology can be invasive and a distraction at times, whereas in the 1980s, my mum would simply sit and read or write in the library.

Library books

Being a third-year history student, I needed to know how my mum got access to university books, as she could not access them online, the internet not existing and all. Today, I pop into Jstor or Google Books, even upon searching for books in my university library, I am normally directed to an alternate page where I can then download an online version of the book. My mum, however, had to get all her books from the library, the majority of which were short loan books only accessible for one night, with many not permitted to be taken out the library. ‘On Friday, you could take books out after 3pm, and not have to return them until Monday morning’, my mum tells me, ‘so people would be queueing up from 2pm to get the best Law books’. The librarian would normally have books stacked on the desk around her and on the floor, as people dropped them off and quickly went to lectures. There was also a system called ‘microfiche’, where film strips of photographed pages of the books could be projected onto a screen and clicked through.

So, was it better?

I’m going to say no, and I’m sure my mum would agree, as she would have appreciated having countless law books at her fingertips on google books and Jstor. However, I am a book lover and the old fashioned, traditional approach to book keeping always seems inviting to me.

So, there you have it, major differences and some similarities that universities of the 1980s share with universities today.

What do you think? Do your parents remember some of these features of university life?

Finally, if this much has changed in 30 years, what will university life be like in 2047?

Thank you mum!


Elizabeth Whittingham Elizabeth is a history graduate currently working in content and communications.