Do I have enough socks to last a term?

1st September 2006 at 01:00
If you think going away to university is tough on the students, spare a thought for the postman. Since results day, I've been getting mountains of envelopes in preparation for the October start date. The form-filling is endless: there are bank account applications, doctor and dentist registrations, IT agreements, fees notification, sign-ups to music groups, freshers' dinners and college T-shirts.

The student contract, announced by Oxford to mild controversy a few months ago, makes an appearance, as does a rather curious form giving the tutors permission to discipline me for sub-standard work. I've also been given a set of college parents, although the length of the odds on them paying my fees means I might just keep the old ones for a bit longer.

What hasn't arrived yet is a reading list. I'm expecting it to be enormous - apparently 40 books isn't an unusual amount - although other students have said that you're not expected to have read it all. My subject is history, which allegedly has less contact time than many. But my adopted parents' letters warned that the workload gets intense and last October, I spoke to a friend who was a fresher at Oxford. "Don't come here!" he said.

"The social life's great but I've worked 70 hours this week and haven't been to bed in days!" But then, what did I expect? I'll just have to embrace a culture of 3am working and lurching from essay crisis to essay crisis. I suppose if I get up before breakfast at eight everyday I'll be able to do it. If... This new life requires a lot of new stuff. In between exotic trips, everyone's been topping up the student loan with as many shifts as they can. I figure that the more clothes I have, the less frequently I'll have to visit the launderette; HM and Topman, student outfitters of choice, must do a roaring trade in September.

But quirkily enough, Oxford calls beyond the standard student wardrobe of hoodies and jeans to demand something called "sub fusc": a black gown and mortarboard worn with a dark suit and a white bow tie. Apparently there was a student union motion to abolish it last year, which, contrary to what you'd suppose would be students' rebellious instincts, was roundly defeated. It's been suggested that it's elitist and off-putting, but I reckon it's pretty harmless. And since the outfit's only really worn for the enrolment ceremony and exams, it might foster a sense of equality and togetherness. It's just a good job the (probably mythical) requirement to carry a sword has died out.

I'm in a catered college - in fact, I don't actually think there is a kitchen for us to use, which might go some way to explaining the permanent presence outside of the kebab van - so I'll save money by avoiding the autumn pilgrimage to Ikea to buy a 60-piece kitchen set, tempting as it is to own something with the moniker of "Skankalj" or "Bloben" or whatever. I confess to having got hold of a cafetiere. I'm not pretentious; I just think coffee tastes better that way. Kids today, eh?

Now, all I have to do is get passport pictures for my passes to dinner and the library. It's rather reminiscent of The Great Escape - the months of burrowing through interviews and exams, of hoarding kit for the big break.

Come October, we pop up "beyond the wire" like Steve McQueen and dash off into the night air. Will we blend in? Will we be caught out as the error on the admissions list we all think we are? Do we have what it takes to stick the three years and make it out the other side?

And how on earth is all my stuff going to fit in the car?

Matthew Holehouse has just left Harrogate grammar school. This is his last column. Email: mattholehouse

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