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'Make it free again': what Manchester's returning students want from university this year
On incestuous friendship groups; trying to break into MI6 and moving to a city you despise for love
By Jack Dulhanty and Sophie Atkinson
It’s freshers week and Oxford Road is a clogged artery. People stop right in front of you to check something or look around and they don’t notice you going around them with a scowl.
There are Mormons playing foosball on the street with passersby. Elder Reeves, hunched over the table with squinted eyes and brilliantined hair, gently reminds his opponent “the only rule is no spinning!” The Islamic Society has little basketball nets you can take a shot at. And, if you follow the Manchester University Chinese Cultural Integration Society on Instagram, you can dress in Harry Potter outfits and have your picture taken in their photo booth.
On the streets and in the Student Union you can overhear an assortment of stilted exchanges between people just a few days into knowing each other for the rest of their lives. There is new energy about the place. The second and third years remark on the sheer numbers, the enthusiasm, with a kind of grim obligation — everyone was annoyed by them when they were freshers, after all.
On Thursday, there was a queue stretching about 100 metres to get into the society's fair, where extracurricular groups set out their stall. The layout was questionable in places, see: the Young Conservatives shoulder-to-shoulder with the Socialist Workers Student Society. “We normally pick up a few people at these things,” Leo, the Young Conservatives chair, said. “Obviously there are a lot of other options. The socialist worker’s party was meant to be next door to us, but they aren’t here yet… probably not out of bed.”
Other, less fraught stalls included the Taylor Swift Society, where members talk about their favourite Swift era, and a Simpsons society, where members get together to watch new episodes and do quizzes. “We just wanted something a little less intense,” Ahnaf, one of the founders, said. “We’ve got like 15 members already! I think we’re going to have to get more doughnuts.”
After the fair was over, societies hosted socials to welcome their new members. The bouldering society, for example, was meeting at the Friendship Inn on Wilmslow Road. The Friendship still very much serves as a community pub as well as a student hangout, which makes for dissonant queues of 19-year-old students in shimmery cargo pants and also 50-year-old plumbers in dusty cargo pants.
Every September, as a new batch of freshers arrive at Greater Manchester’s Universities — alongside the crop of returning students — the region’s population balloons by about 100,000. But the vast majority, 70% according to 2021 estimations, come to the city centre and surrounding neighbourhoods. We’re never going to be able to tell the stories of all of them, so here’s the stories of about five, give or take a few cameos from friends.
What if we started a band?
Lilli and Jasmine, first years at University of Manchester
Lilli and Jasmine are looking for the bouldering society. They swap their IDs with the bouncers at the top of the stairs leading to the entrance of the Friendship Inn. They head straight for the bar and order two pints. Then step out into some open space between the crowds, scanning for calloused palms or ugly shoes or maybe a Patagonia tee.
They come by our table, “are you the bouldering society?” We are not. In fact, we only take the stairs if there are no other options available. Nevertheless, they take a seat to chat with us, but only for five minutes because the boulderers are definitely here somewhere.
Lilli is from Reading and Jasmine from York. They got here a few days apart, dropped off by their parents at the same student accommodation near Whitworth Park. No one cried, they are insistent on this point — they bristle a little at the implication that it was even a possibility. The accommodation is the cheapest they could find and there’s a leak in the common room. Lilli’s bedroom is like a coffin but Jasmine’s is pretty nice, even though they’re both paying the same rent.
Both of them are studying cognitive neuroscience. Why? Lilli makes a face at us like this is a stupid question. Why did we study whatever we studied? We try to justify ourselves: it’s hard to imagine striking upon cognitive neuroscience at 17 years old. 18, Lilli corrects us. She took a year out. Lilli had originally wanted to join the army but was rejected on health grounds. She faints sometimes, which doesn’t bode well for carrying a gun. But her dad had been in the army and she had wanted to take an officer internship programme and try to work in intelligence, MI6, that sort of thing.
Instead she took a year out and worked on a mental health ward as an assistant, which was partly out of passion — it developed her interest in neuroscience — but was also partly a necessity. “One of the reasons I had to work is because I didn’t have the money to go to uni,” she explains, then looking down at the voice recorder like it were a conch shell to the people in charge: “so, make it free again?”
Some of the people on her ward were only a year younger than her but she found in some cases that helped them relate. She’s modest about the whole thing: it was alright, hard at times but alright.
The past week has been hectic, as expected, as is the point. Ahead of their studies starting they’re trying to get themselves to the freshers events that suit them. Boogie Bingo at 256 Fallowfield was a hard pass, but they went to Big Hands — an indie venue on Oxford Road — and managed to piece together a band with some others they met there. Lilli is on guitar, Jasmine on piano and then they’ve got a drummer and someone who can play the trumpet. The name? Not a Fucking Clue. Doesn’t sound that bad.
What if our friendship group got ‘incestuous’ and we survived to tell the tale?
Annie (second year) and Alico (third year), Manchester Metropolitan University
Great friendships exercise their own gravitational pull, so Annie and Alico are conspicuous long before they speak to us. They are both within a gaggle of scruffy boys in hoodies and entirely separate from them, draped across each other chatting in low voices at 1000 mph.
They started off in the same year, both from London, but now Alico is a year ahead of Annie — in her third year of psychology to Annie’s second year. This is because Annie is a person who even at 20, knows herself so completely that she refuses to pursue anything that no longer serves her. She was a ballet dancer for 14 years and has pivoted to salsa and bachata instead. She has applied this same philosophy to her education: she loathed chemical engineering (“too much physics”) so now she studies chemistry, a year behind Alico. This is something a casual bystander would never assume, because Annie is breezily self-confident while Alico seems more prone to second guessing herself (or her results — over summer, "Every other week I’ve had to check just to see that I passed second year, because I’m still in disbelief. I thought I did so bad in my exams.”).
So far, university has been...eventful. “Let’s just say the drama was drama-ing." Alico relents, translates Annie's euphemisms for us: "Our group is quite incestuous." At this, Annie turns to us properly. What happened was, she got together with a guy in their group — a man we spoke to earlier — in the first term of first year. They were together for five months — there is some debate on this point. Did the first two months count if...whisper whisper. Anyway, they were together for at least semester one. Eventually, they broke things off. “He was sad, you were sad.” And then another couple in their group broke up at the same time.
Alico turns to us: "It was a March of misery. It rhymes! Or no, that’s alliteration.” Did the friendship group survive March? They did. It was very hard for a while but they came out the other side. Look, they're even out with him now. It's fine. But over the years, the incestuous stuff has meant a few people leaving the group. “One gentleman left”, entirely of his own accord, he’d fallen out with people. But one man had to be ejected. “You know when a guy gets a bit extreme?” He kept getting — they giggle frantically — "touchy feely" with people. Various members of the group kept trying to talk to him about this, one to one, but he didn't seem to take the feedback on board. Eventually, Annie fixes us with a look. She tells us that they were meant to be meeting someone, and so she's sorry, but they have to go, they only had ten minutes. They trail out of the bar, whispering at a decibel only the two of them can tap into.
What if he moved to make this work?
Rosie (third year at British and Irish Modern Music Institute), Will (graduate from University of Newcastle)
The week before Will left for university, he met Rosie. The timing wasn’t ideal. They met in Sheffield, where they grew up, and Will was going to Newcastle. Things were casual at first, Rosie would go up to Newcastle and visit him every now and again, but it wouldn’t be until the summer of his first year that they became an item.
The September of his second year, Rosie, a drummer, enrolled at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute in Manchester. So, the distance had only grown. They tried to think of it as a positive thing. They were basically getting two university experiences for the price of one, because they had reason to switch between the two cities, experience them, and also meet one another’s friends in either place.
But it was still hard. Lots of coaches and trains. By the end of Rosie’s second year it was getting harder. Whether days were good or bad wasn’t really relevant because they couldn’t be shared, or at least not really, because they were apart. “We just wanted to be able to come home and tell each other about our days but we couldn’t without getting a fucking Flixbus.”
Will was about to graduate and move back to Sheffield when someone dropped out of Rosie’s student house in Withington. There was a spare room and Will took that instead of going home. He kind of hates Manchester, it’s loud and overwhelming and feels unsafe at times. It’s the only place he’s had to queue for a bus. But Rosie’s here and he loves her so it’s fine, and when he says she’s the love of his life she tips her head back and laughs. The distance is gone. “I wouldn’t change it,” Rosie says. “We got a load of friends out of it, and now it’s all even more exciting.”