Originally Published December 2011
Last month saw the conclusion of Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s university-based sitcom Fresh Meat. Released on Channel 4 to a backdrop of student protests, slashed budgets and rising tuition fees, Bain and Armstrong’s timing could not have been better. Predictably, the series played on university clichés, the reclusive and socially-inept nerd, the ‘banter’-obsessed toff, the wide-eyed idealist, and perhaps most notably, the lost and confused almost-adult. This accumulation of sarcastic, scared individuals led to some criticism of the show. The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon identified only cruelty in the comedy, describing it as a ‘torrent of prattling self-hatred’ which amounted to a ‘drainingly bleak hour’. However, it is precisely this uncertainty and self-hatred which is the great strength of Fresh Meat. The way in which Armstrong and Bain develop these scared stereotypes into rounded, caring characters is touching and optimistic. The programme focuses on personal development and finding a place for yourself in the wider world, an aspect of higher education which is all too often neglected.
The various characters are forced to reinvent themselves, JP, an apparently self-absorbed snob, turns into someone who must come to terms with his alienation from those he admires, Oregon attempts to disguise her background, Howard is thrown into a whole new world of social interaction and Josie’s worlds clash as she has to leave her student-hating boyfriend at home. The series could be seen as critical of the lives of students as they spend their time preoccupied with sex, drugs and fitting in (‘shouldn’t they be studying!’ I can hear people crying). Fresh Meat doesn’t present an idealised view of students but instead shows them to be exactly as bad as indignant conservative commentators often suggest. The big difference is that Bain and Armstrong present this view of students in a positive light. They illuminate the value of university beyond academic accomplishment as the characters become able to understand and help each other and themselves. It is a story of six people forced to live together, people who drive each other mad, but also drive each other’s personal development. In this way it is an incredible portrayal of the value of university life.
It is this aspect of university that is conspicuously absent from any national discourse on higher education. New Labour’s target of 50% of people going to university is often met with derision as people make cack-handed accusations of ‘dumbing down’ (does anyone actually know someone enrolled in ‘David Beckham Studies’?). Giving the widest range of young people the chance to gain key qualifications is of the utmost importance, but it is also essential to recognise the social and personal benefits of higher education. Going to university gives you access to an incredibly wide range of different individuals and social groups, building our confidence, social awareness and ability to communicate with others Labour’s aim was surely to create a system that crossed social divisions and distributed opportunity more equally. Where else but university would the daughter of an investment banker from Surrey be able to meet the son of a supermarket worker from Grimsby? Communities, schools and professions are increasingly segregated along socio-economic lines. University can be a remedy to this division, not only giving us an understanding of electromagnetic spectroscopy or medieval metaphysical poetry, but also a broad education in the people we share this tiny, divided island with.
Though our universities do remain embarrassingly unrepresentative of our population at large, they are still an integral force for social equality. This force is under attack from the current government. The Conservatives have a tradition of undervaluing education. From teacher paycuts, to the trebling of fees, to the cutting of Aim Higher, Connexions, EMA, City Learning Centres and Sure Start, to rising living costs for poor students, to complete cuts to humanities departments, the Tories widen educational inequality. These policies are provoked by a misunderstanding of the value of education which in reality extends well beyond traditional academic achievement and economic benefit. In Fresh Meat, Bain and Armstrong show that throwing together a group of people from varied backgrounds causes friction and awkwardness, but it also leads to understanding, compassion and cooperation, qualities that are lacking in this government’s education policy.We should not accept that more people going to university is a bad thing. We should not accept any policy which increases division in our higher education system. We should demand that this government adopts a far more robust approach to broadening equality in education.
At its worst university is a means to an end. At its best it is a tumultuous journey of social and personal growth.