Upon coming to university, everyone is always a little confused about what life as a student will entail – after all, that’s often what makes the process so exciting. You imagine life to be a cocktail of nights out, everyone sitting round with a Starbucks coffee, talking about the meaning of life. But whilst part of this confusion derives from the knowledge that any sort obligatory routine is gone and that you are left to your own devices, there is also a distinct lack of media out there which depicts real life at university. Of course, I should acknowledge that any sort of film or TV show would most likely idealise what student life is: watching someone sit for hours in the library or cook pasta for the fifth night in the row would not make great television. But it seems strange that there is a distinct lack of books, films and TV shows which use university as a backdrop because it is usually the first time that people live without parents around and are faced with the dichotomy of responsibility – bills, rent and independent work – and the liberating independence of your first experience as an adult. Something to consider whilst thinking about this is that life in university is not a universal experience: the Guardian has reported that the number of people choosing to pursue higher education is 49%. Whilst this is still a large proportion of the overall population, it is not a guaranteed experience that everyone is likely to go through unlike school or having a job. Nevertheless, it is still puzzling that there are countless shows, films and books set against the backdrop of high school which, when you think about it, is a little odd as people are younger, less independent and have very little free time – arguably a less interesting basis for a story. So, through the range of media depicting student life out there, what is the overall cultural perception of life at university?
Starting with films, the first ones that came to my head were a strange mixture: Legally Blonde, Pitch Perfect and The Riot Club. They certainly show very different experiences, but each film is very niche and specific to the institution and interest which they seek to explore. The characters in these films mature and come to an understanding about themselves throughout their respective stories which is a factor which we’d like to believe is happening to ourselves whilst at university. But one film that I think captures the expectation versus reality of going away to university is Starter For Ten, based on the book written by David Nicholls. It reflects the messy merging of love, uncomfortable conversations, freedom and alcohol that, for many students, sums up university life.
I would say that most people, when thinking of cultural representations of student life, would think of Channel 4’s Fresh Meat. Set in the fictional Manchester Medlock University, six new students (with the exception of Howard) move into a house together rather than halls of residence. Similar to BBC2’s The Young Ones from the 1980s, it portrays the excitingly eclectic blend of people that are grouped together at university as well as those days where you can just find yourself in your flat wondering to do what with your time. The criticism that Fresh Meat ultimately received, however, was that throughout the final season the characters seemed unphased by their looming graduation and were rarely depicted doing, discussing or thinking about work. Some shows follow their protagonists to university – Gilmore Girls, Boy Meets World and Gossip Girl to name a few – but usually the characters will not spend that much time in university itself as it was not involved in the original premise or storyline of the show. More recently, BBC3 released a rather frightening drama called Clique about students at the University of Edinburgh getting drawn into dangerous groups of friends and external businesses and away from academia and night clubs. But that depicts an experience of student life which I hope no one has go through.
Whilst this is a narrow selection of only TV shows and films, it shows that there are only a few accurate cultural representations of what life at university is like. Most shows and films seem to miss out at least one facet of the university experience, whether it be the essays, the new friends, the societies, the awkwardness of freshers’ week or the bad cooking. I would love to see more film and TV reflecting upon the insanity of modern student life.