The document that changed my life was the University of Essex 1971-72 prospectus.

I was enjoying my A-level Economics, British Constitution and English, and like the rest of the year in my Salford all-boys school, I decided to apply for a university place. Like most people, I had no life plan, great ambitions or much idea how I would earn a living. University would be a great way to postpone decisions. Economics or politics? A joint degree would be another postponement.

The prospectus from Essex was the first to plop through the door and it impressed me from the cover onwards. It was crisp and modern in layout, telling the story of how crisp and modern Essex was. I was used to modernity; born in the hospital where the NHS was launched, growing up in the first council estate built by the post-war Labour government, schools were brand new, as was the parish church, and my dad worked in modern employment areas hugging the Manchester Ship Canal - no dark satanic mills in our life. The sixties had brought the space race, moon landings, colour telly, pop music and wholesale slum clearances. And new universities like Essex, radically different from the fusty Oxbridge colleges and red bricks.

The prospectus sold me the concept of overlapping academic schools and common first years; studying five subjects before specialising in the second and third year - more postponing of decisions! In the Social Studies School my subjects would be Government, Economics, Sociology, Statistics and Computing, with degree exams at the end of the second and third year. Academic paths were spelt out in colour-coded chapters and lots of arrows and lists. I even recognised some the famous names; Tony King and Jean Blondel in Government, Peter Townsend in Sociology, Richard Lipsey in Economics.

It didn’t have halls of residence, but unsupervised residential study rooms in tower blocks. It was recommended that first-years went into lodgings in order to transition to adult life, and rented shared study space on campus with full access to cooking and washing facilities- how very grown up!  

All the pictures in the prospectus were black and white but they showed modern concrete buildings, labs, studio-style lecture halls, cool-looking apartments. Think the BBC’s ‘The History Man’. Of course others prospectuses arrived but I judged them against the Essex pitch, and they didn’t excite me in the same way. So Essex became my first choice. Not that I expected to get in, so I got a scholarship for the only other option I had applied for, to become an accountant with the Atomic Energy Authority!

1970-71 was the year of postal strikes so the whole university application process went by the board. Only applicants for local colleges had interviews and visits. I, like the majority, were wholly dependent on prospectuses, application and headteacher reports.

But I got in! And Essex did not let me down. I felt so comfortable the moment I stepped into the place exactly 50 years ago. I felt I was starting a clean slate. At school everyone had known me as a 4 foot 8 eleven year-old, rubbish at sport in a high achieving sports college. At the start of university we were all equal.

I would have to work hard, having scrapped in. Nah; my brilliant A Level syllabuses (and comprehensive reading list Essex sent me after I had accepted the place) more than prepared me for  the demands of the subjects. So I could spend my time on my social life; pub crawls, discos, folk groups and top bands- who tended to come on stage at midnight, plus the odd demo.

As a naive northerner, I was unaware of Essex’s radical reputation, and was shocked by how many fellow students had not been supported in their choice of Essex by their schools and parents. I just assumed all universities had gay and women's liberation groups, and any number of Marxist flavoured Fronts. Quite a few students were from South American and Iberian dictatorships, and the Commonwealth plus American draft-dodgers. It felt very mature and intense. The only formal occasion was the address by the Vice-Chancellor on the first day; after that respect had to be earned.

My first lodgings were £2.60 a week for bed, breakfast and an evening drink, and 40p a week for a study room- a brilliant and inclusive resource they scrapped in my third year. After a few weeks I wasn’t a first year, but an Essex student with friends across ages and subjects. It’s concept of mixing spread across all aspects of university life; very much what the prospectus stated.

The academic standards leapt in the second year and it wasn’t until a year later I was on top of it all; my social:study ratio was very different. Even though I chose some theory courses most were highly quantitative. I recognise they hard-wired my brain. To this day I analyse everything like a supply chain; inputs, processes and outputs.

In my final years I had a blinding realisation- no one could take the three years off me; my friendships, what I had seen and experienced and what I had learnt. Of course I revised,  but on the Saturday before my final exams I hitched back to Manchester for a 21st party, came back on the Sunday, and into the exam hall in Monday. I got my best results ever; not that I knew because I was wandering around the west coast of the USA when they came out. A letter from my mum told me they were proud of me - proud of what? It needed another letter from a friend to catch up with me to list all our degrees.

I stuck with the new. I got my first graduate job with Telford New Town, managing a population database on the back of my somewhat minor computing experience at Essex. I later worked in other development corporations and I’ve lived 35 of the last 40 years in Washington New Town. In every job, where in research, marketing, property surveying, business telecoms or business consultancy, I’ve sought out data to bash and squeeze like I started at Essex.

That prospectus was a dry, modest document, with no hyperbole that simply set out the philosophy, offer and processes of a university that has shaped my last 50 years. And it steered me away from accountancy.

Front page of the 1971-1972 prospectus with a black and white image of Square 4


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