Ah, September and the new fresher students are preparing to embark on their first year at university. How I envy them! It is one of the great regrets of my life that I was never a young college student, participating in that experience with others starting adulthood, discovering ideas and forming bonds that often last an entire lifetime. Now, in my senior years, it even prickles when I hear friends say “Oh, yes, I know him – we were at Oxford together” (or Trinity College Dublin, or even some American campus).

It’s hard to transmit the experience of one generation to another, and it can be difficult to explain that, when I left my convent school in the 1960s, only a small elite went on to college. You had to prove yourself to be “brainy”. You also had to have parents who would support you, both financially and psychologically, rather than elders who told you to “go out and get yourself a good-looking job”.

One of the best descriptions of student life in Ireland is in Maeve Binchy’s novel Circle of Friends, based on her time at University College Dublin. There’s an illuminating class basis to the uni intake – the students are the offspring of doctors, lawyers, prosperous business folk.

Nowadays it’s considered to be everyone’s right to go to university, and that seems to me to be a good thing. And yet, there is also growing revisionism on the question of third-level education. Many educational commentators now claim that too many youngsters are aiming for uni, when they might be better off learning a trade, or getting a vocational training.

Perhaps it is true that university isn’t for everyone. Perhaps the trend, reported in the Times, for private schools to steer some of their pupils towards more practical skills, is sensible.

All the same, if you never got that chance, at 18, to aspire to the dreaming spires, you never quite get over a rueful feeling of having missed out on a truly formative experience.

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