A-levels and what to do next: How university life has changed since 1997

By Christian Hewgill
BBC Newsbeat reporter

Image caption,
Hamant Verma, Chinelo Awa and Lauren Taylor who went to uni in 1997, 2007 and 2017

One of life's most exciting moments? Or downright terrifying?

For thousands of A-level students opening their results today, university will be on their minds.

The uni experience has changed a lot in the past 20 years, most notably with the introduction of tuition fees across the UK in 1998.

Newsbeat's been speaking to three students who started uni in 1997, 2007 and 2017.

What's changed over the decades? What's stayed strangely similar? And if you're going, what should you expect from university life?


Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Liam Gallagher, arguably at the height of Oasis's fame in 1997

It was a year of Tony Blair's New Labour and Britpop on the radio. Men In Black and Titanic were on the big screen.

As students started uni in September Elton John was number one with Candle in the Wind. He'd recorded a version of the song in tribute to Princess Diana, who was killed in a car crash in August.

Hamant Verma, now 39, started at Leicester's De Montfort University in 1997.

On day one he borrowed £20 from his dad to take the person in the room opposite for a drink.

That could probably have bought the whole block a pint back then.

Image source, Nokia / Getty Images
Image caption,
Changing times, changing phones: Hamant's 1997 Nokia N5110, Chineo's Nokia N97 from 2007 and Lauren's iPhone 7 from 2017

If you're off to uni this year, your experience will have a soundtrack you look back on. Hamant remembers a lot of Oasis, Blur, R&B and bhangra.

If you were discussing politics in bars or lecture theatres, it was a different time but some topics will sound familiar.

"Russia was no longer a big threat, China hadn't really emerged. So there was talk about the EU, and why it was a good thing," he explains.

"Stopping wars, working together on things like the environment.

"It was seen as something positive and quite cool to be part of all these nations."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Tony Blair at the start of his successful 1997 election campaign

Money is never far from campus conversation, but financially Hamant had fewer worries than today's students.

"You didn't pay tuition fees, you had a maintenance grant and banks were throwing overdrafts at you.

"You could enjoy the social experience more than now."

The internet may seem like it's been around forever, but the web and mobiles were just warming up 20 years ago.

"We weren't sure if we could trust what we were reading," Hamant says.

"You were still having to go to the library and read through books. Having no IT skills wasn't a great stress."

Facebook wasn't online until 2004 and Twitter came along two years after that.

Texting was becoming more common, but at 10p a text Hamant recalls arranging to meet at a specific place and time more often than he does now.


Image caption,
Chinelo Awa initially struggled to settle at University of Hull, but after making friends they all figured out uni life together

Fast forward to 2007 and it was Spiderman 3 and the Transformers doing battle in the cinemas, while Sean Kingston was singing about Beautiful Girls. What a time for music.

Sean was top of the Official Chart when international student Chinelo Awa, now 30, arrived from Nigeria to study commercial law in Hull. But the first song she heard in the UK was by the Scissor Sisters.

"Bashment was also reigning at the time," she tells Newsbeat. "All this skanking, I feel so old saying that!

"Dancehall music was popular too, and we had that guy who sung Superman, Soulja Boy!"

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Chinelo says I Don't Feel Like Dancing was on the radio constantly in 2007

Money dominated the news and cash had become a bigger worry in more ways than one.

"It was all, 'The economy, will it or won't it crash?' Then of course by 2008 it all happened," Chinelo remembers.

"There were a lot of people saying 'This is such an unfortunate time for you to be approaching graduation'."

By this point students had to pay tuition fees to study.

In 1998, you'd pay a maximum of £1,000 a year. That tripled in 2006 to a maximum of £3,000, and rose again in 2012 to £9,000.

As a foreign student, Chinelo was paying around £7,000 a year in 2007.

How do tuition fees work around the UK?

  • Universities can charge up to £9,250 per year
  • Students do not pay this up front, but can borrow the full amount
  • They can also take a loan for living costs
  • Disadvantaged students can borrow more for living costs, on the assumption that better-off students are supported by their parents
  • Interest of up to 6.1% is charged on loans from when students start at university
  • Students begin to repay loans once they earn £21,000, with this threshold being raised to £25,000
  • Any unpaid debts are written off after 30 years
  • In Scotland's universities, there are no fees for Scottish students
  • In Northern Ireland, fees are up to £4,030
  • In Wales, fees are up to £9,000 with plans for higher levels of maintenance support
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
People queuing outside a Northern Rock at the height of the banking crisis in 2007

As for texting friends - WhatsApp didn't exist in 2007 so you'd need a text bundle from your mobile phone company.

"I got 300 texts," Chinelo says.

"Landline bundles were really popular too. Between 10am and 6pm you could call free for an hour, so you'd hang up every 59 minutes."


Image caption,
Lauren Taylor at the University of Lincoln

For the class of 2017 and probably 2018 too, it's the era of grime, rap and hip-hop, according to Lauren Taylor.

The 19-year-old started studying media production last year.

She and her mates listen to Cardi B, Drake and Kanye. Taylor Swift was number one on her first day and they love 90s and 2000s club nights.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Star Wars: The Last Jedi was the most popular film in cinemas in 2017

Like Hamant did 20 years ago, Lauren and her mates talk about the EU a lot.

"You would think people our age aren't really invested in Brexit, but we are.

"The majority of people my age wanted to remain. We felt we'd get more trading opportunities and be able to find more jobs abroad.

"My tuition fees cost £9,250 and my rent last year was £5,155.

"Last year I had a maintenance loan of £7,000 so I had enough to live on, but I did still struggle with the price of food.

"It's hard as I know I'm going to be in so much debt but I think it's worth it and my course is value for money."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Debt has become more of a worry for today's students

Life after uni

Chinelo says university was the best opportunity of her life. She now combines running a cake business with working in construction law.

Hamant works in finance and loved exploring Leicester. Lauren still has another two years in Lincoln to go.

"So far its been a rollercoaster with some amazing highs," she says.

"I've met incredible life-long friends, and while there have been low times, this past year has been the best of my life."

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