At the end of it all

[Image: group of St Andrews University students wearing red gowns walking past the ruins of the cathedral.]

I have finished university. For so much of my time there, I never thought I would say those words. It has been an incredibly complicated time, leaving me with memories both brilliant and terrible, and more mental health problems than when I went into it, though a scarily large number of students would likely say the same thing.

As someone who had never struggled academically at school, I had huge problems adjusting, and found that my autism made it much harder than I thought it would be. Trying to adjust to all the change was hard, and it didn’t help that there was far less academic support than in my school.

But nevertheless, I made it out the other end. Even with a few moments in there when I never thought I would. University is hard, and when you’re as emotionally fragile as I am, it can legitimately be dangerous. The way students are pressured these days, both academically and financially, is completely awful.

I have been absent from writing for a while due to exams, and I am just so glad they’re over now. I don’t have my results yet, I won’t get them until the 12th June, but I’m pretty sure I passed everything (this time). Now all I need to do is figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

Anyone know of any jobs?

There’s a mix of emotions at this time. One is sheer relief that I’m done, but there’s a lot more fear of what’s next than I expected. I have absolutely no idea what I want to do, and despite how badly most of my undergraduate career went, I’m considering doing a postgraduate in 2019.

For all my previous life stage transitions, I’ve had a clear idea of where I wanted to go next. Things have never gone according to plan, but at least I had a plan back then. This time, there’s nothing known in the future. I have no idea where I’m going, and I have even less idea of where I want to go.

For a while I considered taking a gap year and traveling, then I realised that I would probably struggle to cope with that, given the uncertainties involved, and the fact that most affordable accommodation is also really noisy. Gap years are not the most autistic-friendly activity.

I might still give it a try, but that’s pretty much where I’m at right now. Confused, uncertain, and with no idea of where I’m going from here.

It’s still better than the way I felt at university.

Why I Support Striking University Staff

As a student at the University of St Andrews, I am supporting the striking university staff in the dispute over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). UUK announced plans to change the pension scheme from one where university staff have a guaranteed retirement income to one where pensions are dependent upon the stock market. In the worst case, this could lead to a reduction in pension income of £10,000 a year. In response, the University and College Union (UCU) announced 14 days of strike action.

A deal was offered to end the strikes on the 12th March, which would have resulted in staff contributing much more of their current income towards the pension scheme for no further benefits. UUK claims the scheme has a deficit; however, this is disputed and some universities, mine included, have been claiming that as fact. Regardless of whether there is a deficit or not, cutting pensions is not the way to solve the problem. The UCU rejected the detail, and a second wave of strike action is due to happen in the future.

While the pensions of university staff are under attack, vice chancellors and equivalent continue to be paid large sums of money, much more than is necessary for anyone to live. Meanwhile, these are the people who want to cut the pensions of staff with much smaller salaries. This kind of pay gap is synonymous with capitalism, an economic system which necessitates inequality.

As a final year student, this could not come at a worse time, as by their nature, the strikes are disrupting students’ education. This is not the fault of those striking, it is the fault of employers for proposing this outrageous scheme and failing to present an acceptable deal at negotiations. University staff have a difficult job, one in which the pay is comparably less to other professions requiring the same skill level. Staff deserve to feel security about their retirement, but under this scheme, that security is eliminated.

As students, we should be supporting our lecturers and the other staff whose pensions are at risk. Some current students wish to continue with academia, and hope to work at a university one day, and these proposals may discourage some from doing so. Those who choose academia do so in the knowledge that they are passing up far more lucrative careers. At the moment, however, they have the promise of a decent pension in retirement.

If these proposals were to go ahead, that promise would not exist. There would be no security, no guaranteed income and no guaranteed retirement plan. It is highly likely then, in that case, that many people would be discouraged from entering academia. Other careers requiring similar education tend to have better pay and are often less stressful. As current students deciding on our future careers, this is very important.

At the end of the day, nobody wants to have to strike. They lose pay for the days not working, and university staff do care greatly about students’ education – they chose that career, after all. But in this case, industrial action is necessary. It is disruptive by its nature, designed to show employers how much they need their employees. It shows employers that their proposal is completely unacceptable, that it is over a line that cannot be crossed without action being taken.

I call on other students to join me in taking action to support the strike. If you are unsure how to do so, the UCU has a guide to students supporting the action. UUK needs to understand that cutting pensions is completely unacceptable, and hardworking staff deserve security in their retirement. I hope a deal that does not leave staff worse off, either just now or in the future can be reached.

Student drinking culture, and why I joined in

It is common knowledge that in the UK, many university students often drink alcohol to excess. This is done in pubs, clubs, a friend’s house… wherever, really. And it is done often. Those who choose not to participate in the drinking often feel excluded, and though they are perfectly welcome to attend, it’s hardly enjoyable to be the sober one in a loud, crowded club that you can’t have a conversation in without yelling. Especially if you’re autistic, but also applies to any neurotype.

When I first started university, I did not drink. As a child I was quite strongly anti-alcohol, and I saw no reason to change this. I had no opposition to others drinking, but I did not wish to partake myself. I made it through to the last exam of my first year never having been drunk. I’d drunk a little alcohol on occasions – Christmas, birthdays, but only ever one glass at a time, never to excess.

I failed my last exam of my first year, and after exiting the exam I believed it highly probable. It had been disastrous. That night, I had an end of year social with one of the few societies I was in at the time. Almost every Tuesday for the year, I’d gone to their socials and events. They held their socials in pubs, and all year the other regular members had been encouraging me to drink.

There was so much stigma attached to not drinking, and I could give them neither a religious nor a health reason why I did not. And so they persisted. I ignored them every time, and strongly and easily told them no. However that day, following my failure, I decided perhaps I should give it a go – after all, with such a high probability I’d failed, my life was messed up, my principles shot to pieces, everything that made me who I was torn up and thrown out. Much of my identity rested on my academic capabilities at the time.

That was the first time I got drunk. Since then, much has changed. My grades have been terrible, I hate studying and I have no interest in my degree. I drank fairly regularly during my second year of university, as I had flatmates in halls of residence who constantly had drinking nights. Alcohol makes me hyperactive and often argumentative. Towards the end of my second year, I decided it had done nothing good for me, and plenty bad. I almost didn’t get into honours; I had to do multiple exam resits.

By some miracle I started third year. I did not drink at all from September up until one glass of cider in December. I did not fail any of my December exams. When 2017 began, I made it one of my new years resolutions not to drink.

I broke that resolution eight days ago, Friday 24th. I was out with the friends I miraculously managed to actually acquire; given how long I’d searched, I thought my quest for friendship was a lost cause. And my reasoning behind breaking this resolution? I felt left out. We’d gone to the Union, which is not our normal pattern of events. We tend to go to one of our houses and play board games or watch YouTube videos. There were seven of us, five of whom were drinking (though one did wander off and go see others half the time).

Naturally, I decided to join in. I was given an easy opening; one of them did not want a shot that had been purchased for her. And so it began. And that night was good, everything was fine. And so, when the group planned the same for next week, yesterday now, I decided to go along.

This time, all was not so okay. I drank far too much, and vomited in the end. The night wasn’t great and the next morning I just felt upset and angry with myself. For I’d remembered why I made the new years resolution – because this can only damage my grades, exhaust me for long time (after all, I’m masking all through the night and as more alcohol is consumed -> masking becomes more difficult -> I need to spend even more energy doing it), and because this is not who I was and not who I want to be.

I have no problem with other people drinking, but I never wanted to get involved in this myself. And I’m angry with myself for breaking my word. I’m angry with myself because when I read my diary entries from as little as two years ago, I see an entirely different person from who I am now – and I think I like her better.

I started drinking to fit in, I started drinking to make friends and later to keep them. These are common reasons, I believe, but they’re not good ones. I’d gone so long on my own with no friends, I was desperate. I compromised on fundamental principles of who I am. I don’t recognise who I’ve become, and I’ve done things that could mess up my whole future, given the effect on my grades.

The pressure to drink and the stigma of not drinking lead many students to participate in this culture of drinking to excess, and little is done about it. There are token campaigns to reduce student binge drinking, but nothing that actually tackles the root of the problem. ‘Students drink alcohol, if you don’t you are weird’ is too firmly ingrained in culture to go away overnight.

It’s not just a problem of statistics, it does affect people. Peer pressure is an actual thing, that I used to pride myself on resisting and now feel ashamed of allowing it to happen to me. I cannot turn back time, I can only change the present and hope it extends to the future. But it’s hard to change when the same pressures and same stigma remain that got me here in the first place.