MyExeter: Broken Windows, Bulldozers & Bundles of Fun

In 2009, when I applied to study at Exeter, I had never visited the city—let alone walk around the nearby University campus, with its winding paths and redbrick buildings. (Embarrassingly, I also applied to Cardiff University, solely on the basis that I had been to a couple of mosh-pit-filled gigs at its Students’ Union as a spotty-faced sixteen-year-old.) Instead of being completely unaware, though, I had done my research into University of Exeter: I knew, for instance, that it boasted one of the UK’s best English Literature courses, that its top men’s hockey team had been playing in the National League, and that I wanted to live in Pennsylvania Court, one of Exeter’s best catered halls.

Eventually, I ended up playing for EUMHC. (Completely by chance, I also made an appearance for the 1s.)

Eventually, I ended up playing for EUMHC 6s. (Completely by chance, I also made an appearance for the 1s.)

 
Come September 2010, having been accepted onto my chosen course, I was put into catered halls at University of Exeter. But rather than a double-bed, en-suite room all to myself at Penny C, as it is commonly known amongst students, I ended up sharing a musty-smelling, carpet-stained room in a 16-man detached house—yes, a house—named Lazenby. Rumoured to be a former GP surgery, you can find Lazenby on the very edge of Exeter’s campus. Boasting a large back garden, with a towering pine tree right in the centre, it really is unlike any other Exeter’s halls. The year before I arrived, for example, whilst most student residences already had Wi-Fi, residents were made to arrange their own internet access with BT. During my ten-month tenancy, meanwhile, a broken ground-floor window provided an easy means of entrance whenever you stumbled home, blurry-eyed, without your keys and phone. The absence of a full-time resident tutor also made it a great location for parties—although, being well-behaved first-years, of course we never dared to host one.

The year before I arrived, for example, whilst most student residences already had Wi-Fi, residents were made to arrange their own internet access with BT.

Since July 2013, partly due to staff numbers increasing, Lazenby has been closed as a student residence and used instead for office space. Across campus, in fact, as part of the University’s £275 million investment scheme, a number of blocks among Exeter’s lower-standard halls have been closed and redeveloped. During my first year, due to this substantial investment, the University’s campus often felt like more of a building site than one of an academic institution. In Lazenby, usually at around 9am, and with the mouldy curtains—naturally—still drawn, the distant drum of a pneumatic drill splitting concrete would suddenly rouse my roommate and me. For the students affected most by the noise, the University eventually gave them the option of moving to accommodation—Birks Grange—on the other side of campus. One morning, whilst still in their underwear, a female student was even greeted by a hard-hat-wearing builder at their window, who had scaled the building’s scaffolding.

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Old Lazenby, where some students reportedly kept live guinea pigs in the bath.

 
In May 2012, after two years of nine-to-five noise, the Queen herself opened the Forum, the shining centrepiece of University of Exeter’s investment programme. Inside the award-winning building, which some students have jokingly compared to Heathrow’s Terminal 5, the refurbished library is perhaps its most popular (or most used) section. Finally, whilst working, no longer did we students have to hunch over rickety, wooden desks, with grey bricks and dim, flickering lights surrounding us. Instead, including a room full of touch-screen technology, the University provided us with a host of state-of-the-art facilities—which, in my mind at least, fully justified The Sunday Times’ decision to name Exeter as its University of the Year for 2013. During the same period, in almost a constant stream of good news, Exeter broke into the world’s top 200 Universities and, perhaps more importantly, joined the Russell Group, an organisation of the UK’s leading academic institutions. All of a sudden, as lower-year school friends began their UCAS applications, my Facebook account became clogged with messages, asking: ‘What’s Exeter like? Would you recommend it? Do you really have to read that many books?’ From these enquiries, one thing appeared clear: Exeter was increasingly becoming a first-choice student destination.

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The Forum – which really does, trust me, look a little bit like Terminal 5 inside.

 
Sadly, whilst the University wholly deserves its recent plaudits, there have also been some negative aspects to its rise in popularity—notably, and somewhat ironically, the sharp rise in the student population. Between 2011/12, my second year, and 2013/14, when I returned from my year abroad, just over a thousand more students have arrived at Exeter, as the University accepted almost a third more applicants. Of course, across the whole Streatham campus, one thousand extra students hardly sounds like a significant figure—yet University of Bristol, in 2012, became the UK institution with the highest student in-take increase with 1,029 more overall students. Within Exeter’s nightclubs, particularly in the most popular ones (such as Arena or Timepiece), this increase manifests itself far more noticeably. Earlier this year, for instance, as scores of drunken students danced upstairs, part of Timepiece’s middle-floor ceiling crumbled, with debris just missing those beneath. As TJ Nartey, a final year undergraduate, says: “In comparison to when I first arrived at Exeter, there are certainly more students. The clubs are crowded and the queues outside are far longer. To an extent, it does spoil the city’s student experience.”

The clubs are crowded and the queues outside are far longer. To an extent, it does spoil the city’s student experience.

Between my first and fourth years, then, spanning from 2010 to 2014, University of Exeter has changed remarkably, finalising large-scale investment projects and thus becoming a far more prominent institution in the higher-education sector. Of course, from what I have learned—whether academically, about myself or about other people—I really do owe an enormous amount to University of Exeter. (In financial terms, ironically, I actually do owe them quite an enormous amount.) Naturally, as I move on from Exeter, the friends and memories I have made here will remain with me—unlike my first-year fancy dress costumes—for a long, long time. With its rising population, though, which has indirectly resulted in more than 100 students having to live in hotels until after Christmas, another issue remains in my mind: Has University of Exeter made itself an unwitting victim of its own success?

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Lazenby 2010/11, a great group of people that I will never forget.

 
This article was originally published in the Express & Echo on June 25, 2014.

Compluntense II

State-funded systems, such as Universidad Cumpluntense Madrid, have suffered under the austerity of the Spanish government...

State-funded systems, such as Universidad Cumpluntense Madrid, have suffered under the Spanish government’s austerity.

©BenStupples2014

The Great Gatsby

For generations of young (especially Ivy League) Americans, Gatsby and the whole Fitzgerald myth has had the same destructive effect as Brideshead on a certain type of English youth. Nearly all countries have some national variant of this: novels that slipped their moorings and epitomised a certain aspiration. Read in the right — or rather the wrong — way they may be the epitome of style. But how strange it is that so many books that should be read as a warning get read as a yearning. Gatsbyinvites us to wallow. Doubtless in the coming weeks we will again. But we ought not to‘.

The not so great Gatsby‘ by Douglas Murray for The Spectator 

Are our private lives too public?

Every university student using social media nowadays is part of what journalists worldwide call Generation Facebook. Having used it for several years already, the majority of us are naturally aware of its negative aspects (such as receiving friend requests from complete strangers). However, being conscious of the downsides to social media does not mean we have become invulnerable to them. In August 2012, Ben McNeely, a third-year Economics student at University of Birmingham, went to a Caribbean-themed party wearing an afro-wig with his skin painted black. Once a photo of him in this attire recently emerged on Facebook, a racism debate rapidly ensued at University of Birmingham – an institution where nearly a third of its undergraduates come from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background – and McNeely was eventually forced to make a public apology and resign from him position as President of the Christian Union. Ten years ago, before the inception of Facebook (2004) and the subsequent arrival of other social media (such as Twitter), this scandal would probably not have happened; hardly anyone would ever have seen the offending photo. The success of social media subsists on a willingness to disclose content that may have remained relatively private in the past (party photos, for instance). Broadcasting such material to our friends and followers is generally one of the most positive aspects to social media, giving us each a unique means through which we can express ourselves and communicate with others. However, as the case of Ben McNeely demonstrates, there is a sensitive balance between what our respective audiences regard as appropriate and downright offensive.

In ‘1984’, arguably his most accomplished work, George Orwell satirises the ubiquitous surveillance of a totalitarian government in the dystopian novel, a theme epitomised by the all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother. The means through which the ruling government – The Party – maintains its unrelenting control over its citizens is technology, specifically television. ‘With the development of television’, writes Orwell, ‘and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end’. Today, supported by the fact we can access it easily on any internet-connected device (mobile phones, laptops, home computers), the same can also be said for social media. It is just as pervasive as the telescreens Orwell conceived in ‘1984’ in order to encapsulate his concern over the emergence of television – still a relatively new invention in 1948 (note the swap of numerals), the year the satirical novel was published. Facebook, for instance, automatically keeps track of our respective locations through the photos in which we feature, whilst it also greets us with the question: ‘What are you thinking?’ There are significant differences between the furtive surveillance Orwell portrays in ‘1984’ and our use of social media, though: we students are not members of a totalitarian regime; nor are we invading the privacy of others with the intent of discovering wrongdoing. However, as the ‘blacking up’ scandal of Ben McNeely suggests – one that stemmed from social media, we do indeed observe each other online. This can make us feel insecure, perhaps even paranoid about what others think of us. Consider how aware of social media we can be nowadays whilst posing for photos, for instance. Like Winston Smith, the persecuted protagonist of ‘1984’, we are conscious of being under surveillance.

Besides our friends and family, there is another group of individuals of whom we students should be mindful on social media, perhaps more so than any other: our potential employers. In a recent study on the importance of social media for companies in their hiring procedures, 91% said they used it to screen perspective employees; 69% said they had rejected a candidate because of what they saw about them. Consequently, although doing so at the time may seem side-splittingly funny, the bleary-eyed images some of us upload onto social media of our drunken behaviour during ‘heavy’ nights out may not be the most astute decision, particularly with ‘posted content about them drinking’ being a possible reason for an applicant’s rejection. ‘Many young people do not appreciate how an offensive comment or embarrassing photograph can create an indelible stain on an individual’, says one board member of a multinational firm, ‘and how it can subsequently become an impediment for them successfully applying for a position for which they are otherwise perfectly suited.’ We post such inappropriate material because of the freedom social media seems to permit us – a freedom that can have a negative effect on our public image as a result. However, when it is used responsibly, social media can equally enhance our employment chances: 68% of companies say they hire candidates after seeing them on social media, with giving ‘a positive impression of their personalities’ as the most popular reason for doing so. Companies, it seems, are attempting to gain as much information as they can about us through social media – and why not? By uploading personal details onto social media, we publicise them on one of the most public domains in the world: the internet. Consequently, we should all be mindful of the image of ourselves we portray through social media. If we are, and thus use social media sensibly, it is something we can easily manipulate to our advantage.

Published on The Exeter Tab.

A Letter From the Department of Health

Receving a letter from the Department of Health would normally send a paralysing wave of panic through most health-obsessed hypochondriacs such as myself. On this occasion, however, as I mentioned in ‘A Letter From No. 10 Downing Street’, I was in fact expecting a reply from Health Secretary Andrew Lansley or (more likely) from one of his advisors regarding my article on students’ binge-drinking: ‘Why Do Students Love Booze’. I was encouraged to discover that the matter, as you can discover yourself from reading the letter, is ostensibly an issue with which the central and local governments are attempting to address. I will continue to keep a watchful eye, though, over both governments’ actions over the matter of alcohol abuse: I still suspect it is far more severe than anyone in either our local or central governments could ever have imagined. So far, also, I have found no evidence to suggest they are taking action locally.

Why Do Students Love Booze?

Wine, vodka, gin, beer, whisky, champagne, port, rum, absinthe, cider, ale – the catalogue of alcoholic drinks stocked on shelves across the country is almost as innumerable as the health issues ensuing from excessive use of them: cancer of the mouth, neck and throat; high-blood pressure, an irregular heart beat and cirrhosis of the liver, to name the most severe. You may have thought, then, that at our hallowed universities (where the most intelligent young minds of our society can be found) students would make a deliberate effort to avoid exposing themselves to alcohol, a substance that David Nutt, a former Government drugs adviser, identifies as ‘the most dangerous drug in the UK’. You would, however, be totally wrong. Whilst to some extent there has always been a drinking culture in our universities, mostly due to the social freedom most wide-eyed students discover once they have waved their parents goodbye, the emergence and dangerous development of what Dr. David Nylund describes as the ‘new lad’ (a misogynistic and amoral hedonist, seemingly) since the mid-1990s has slowly strengthened the grip that alcohol has on university students.

Nowadays, as one female second year English Literature and Spanish student at a Russell Group university says, ‘alcohol is seamlessly ingrained into the majority of most students’ lifestyles, and the laddish camaraderie that exists among male students certainly encourages this culture’. Drinking alcohol is now not only a means of enjoying yourself among friends, but also a way of proving your worth to your peers in student sports clubs and societies. Dr. Nylund, interestingly, suggests this ‘new lad’ culture was an initial response to the ‘humiliation and indignity’ caused by the ‘girl power!’ movement during the 1990s (remember the Spice Girls?). Men, he explains, felt ‘battered by feminism’ throughout this period, resulting in the subjugation of the stereotypically domineering male ego and its subsequent fashioning into a passive image. Men, thereafter, needed to react to second-wave feminism; they needed to find a new identity. However, rather than reinventing the lad as a respectful and righteous man, the ‘new lad’, the male response to the girl power movement, can only be regarded as an exacerbation of the insensitive, binge drinking and aggressive old one. ‘Lads took up an anti-intellectual position’, Dr. Nylund says, ‘scorning sensitivity and caring in favour of drinking, violence and a pre-feminist racist attitude to women’.

Consequently, it is unsurprising that this period saw the inception and subsequent popularity boom in ‘Lads’ Mags’ such as Maxim (1995), FHM (rebranded in 1994) and Loaded (1994); whilst films that promoted male hegemony such as ‘Snatch’ (2000) and ‘Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ (1998) also proved to be tremendously successful. (‘Snatch’, according to Guy Ritchie, the film’s Director, earned over a 400% profit from its $3,000,000 budget as it grossed £12,137,698 in the UK alone.) The new lad susbequently managed to liberate men throughout the last decade of the 20th century from the grasps of ‘girl power!’ Since then, however, today’s young adults, the generation who grew up amidst the confusion of the gender conflict, have now become advocates of this culture: they have suppressed any potential feminist movement since the millennium, a notion that is perhaps most patent in the laddish lifestyle of the university student. Throwing up one’s alcohol-saturated stomach contents outside clubs (an indication of Dr. Nylund’s alcohol-loving ‘new lad’) is not only accepted but also, shockingly, the norm. If you’re at a ‘pre-lash’ (a quasi-house party where students drink, often heavily, to avoid spending money later on in clubs), it is also common practice to spew in someone’s bin, sink or, if the queue for the bathroom’s too long, on their carpet. From my own experience as student over the past two years, usage of the toilet is an ostensible luxury.

The disturbing connotations of flagellation evoked by the verb ‘to lash’ in the term ‘pre-lash’ should not be ignored, too. Many, I’m sure, will argue that its meaning should not be taken seriously, that it is tongue-in-cheek. However, whilst the term may well have been so when it was first coined, it simply is not now due to the amount students drink before going out. ‘At a pre-lash’, according to one male French and Spanish student, ‘it is not unusual to drink a bottle of wine over an hour’, an amount of alcohol equivalent to three times the legal drink driving limit. Students, then, are foolishly (and dangerously) abusing their own bodies, which may have serious consequences to their physical health in the future. ‘This kind of activity contributes to the fact that we now see people presenting with alcohol-related liver cirrhosis at a much younger age’, says Dr. Varuna Aluvihare, liver specialist at King’s College Hospital. ‘Any day of the week I might now expect to see 20-to-30 year old patients with livers working at only 5% or 10% of their normal function and needing a transplant, while 15 to 20 years ago we rarely saw this in people under 50’ (Gardner).

Some students, staggeringly, have in fact started drinking before even going out to a pre-lash. ‘Almost regularly’, says one female Biochemistry student from a leading UK university, ‘I watch and time my male house mates ‘strawpedo’ (downing a drink as quickly as possible via use of a bendy straw) their bottles of wine, often in less than ten seconds, before the pre-lash’. She then goes on to state, ‘I wouldn’t have believed anyone before I came (to university) that I would accept this behaviour as normal. However, maybe we have all just learned to accept it as day-to-day normality’. This alcohol-fueled culture has become indoctrinated, therefore, into student society. It is emerging as a prevalent problem in universities and investigations into its negative effects suggest it is a matter that must be resolved. Recent studies by Cardiff University’s Gabrielle Ivinson and Open University’s Patricia Murphy both identify lad culture as a source of behavioural confusion, whilst Adrienne Katz has even linked it to depression and suicide. If laddish students continue their reckless rate of alcohol consumption their livers, simply put, may not last for long.

Published in The Prisma