06/09/2011 11:34 BST | Updated 19/10/2011 06:12 BST

The Wizardry of University

I met up with an old friend Robert down at the Commonwealth Club near to the Charing Cross tube station in London yesterday. He joined me during his lunch-break from the city law firm where he has worked for the last ten years. We were friends as youngsters mainly through our shared interest in athletics and orienteering. There was a critical difference in our educations, however. I went to the local town comprehensive (Huddersfield) while he was bussed over to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield. He moved onto Oxford then Stanford for his MA. Finally he came back to work in London in 1999. But we both read the same non-academic Steven King and Frank Herbert horror books and had the same interests in life and culture. While I have kept the running going and am still lean for a middle aged 45 year old, he had developed quite a mid-drift and the former 80s style "mullet" hairstyle receded back to the level of a mean looking marine. But his face was line free. Braces and designer clothes strengthened the stereotype.

He was astonished to discover that I had finally ended up working at a university. "Was it a recession choice?" he enquired.

"No" I replied (I have been employed since 1996 in the HE sector).

Robert continued, "you were so entrepreneurial in your teens, and you showed little or no interest in school, I had put you down as probably ending up running some kind of discount fashion business or a financial advisor but never a lecturer, I thought the priest Sean (a close mutual friend of ours) was a strange calling but this takes the biscuit!"

I told him on entering my 30s that I had gone about reinventing myself. I first did a degree and then a PhD. A failed business, a turbulent and doomed relationship, and the feeling that I had somehow missed out on the "special" student experience (which many a friend told me about) drove me along a new path, one not tread previously by anyone before in my family.

We discussed our old mates and our shared experiences, girls, the parties, the 80s music from two-tone, ska, the new romantics and then the raves and acid house. Then our lives went separate ways when he rode off, driven by his dad in the Mercedes convertible down the M1 on the way to Oxford.

That is until the social media revolution converged our life paths back together once again. Mid-life curiosity I guess ("whatever happened to that clever fool - Graham").

Interestingly it wasn't curiosity but he contacted me as he wanted someone to talk to for advice. His family life was in free fall. This perfect son (his mother used to boast continuously about him to my mum when they used to go to their local yoga class every Thursday night in the nearby community centre) was not so perfect after all. To cut a long story short, he had left his wife and teenage son for a work colleague, a young Malaysian around half his age. The curse of the mid-life crisis. The trips up Everest, the ultra-marathons, the gym junkies, the cosmetic surgery.... it manifests itself in many different forms. At least he hadn't changed his hair colour like two of my forty something colleagues here at Leeds have done - from brown to blonde or arrived to work in ripped jeans??

Robert could never see himself working at a university, the standards have dropped, too many students, too short a semester, too much technology and not enough resource.

In his words, "a mundane charitable profession full of people who can teach but cannot do. Students don't read like they used to or want a complex intellectual challenge".

"It is different" I replied.

"It is easier not like in our day when we had four hour exams and one-to-one tutorials," he remarked with a sarcastic smile.

I didn't rise to the bait. The complex array of assignment facing current students would have took too much explaining. This is the thing about universities everyone has a perception of them. Robert has his view, I have mine and you have yours. They helped me to reinvent myself, to understand the world better, to be more civilised to have a social conscious and to think carefully before making decisions. As a student I learnt to manage my money and to be responsible for my actions. I did things like help disabled students and learnt to work and appreciate other people. Also to stop distrusting people from other backgrounds and classes. Learning is as much about discussion and listening from your fellow students as well as the guy/lady lecturing to you at the front of the teaching room. Certainly you learnt very little from complaining? I have earned so much more culturally, intellectually and socially from the experience than I would ever earn financially. I can appreciate so much more about life than that youngish person who first entered the sector as a mature undergrad in 1990.

Universities have been radically restructured since the 1990s, streamlined and made more efficient, developed blended learning methodologies, have vast technology-support infrastructures, mercilessly driven the productivity of their staff and become more relevant to the business and industrial world. The architecture and rooms have been transformed. What was once old, decadent and tatty is now modern, comfortable with amazing visual aesthetics. Instead of a lectern, a chalkboard and a piece of chalk, the lecturer now stands in front of a "star-trek" cockpit equipped with all the latest technological wizardry. Instead of chalk and talk, the lecture is now often a "multi-media" experience choreographed as an artistic performance.

But one thing remains and that is they still offer a space and time for people to read, think, contemplate and develop their thoughts, knowledge and understanding of the world. For a civilised society to function we need people to be able to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions in an ever complex world.Well I went into my degree reading Steven King and came out reading Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck. A little progress I guess.

"For every profit there is a cost" an old professor remarked to me at Salford on my first academic appointment. His other educational ethos was one of "you shouldn't through fish at a hungry man you should throw him a fishing rod!" But that one's for another time and place.

After our hearty lunch in the Commonwealth Club, Robert confessed that he was a little worried about the future as shortly he would have a new boss, a recently qualified MBA graduate from Leeds.