Monday night saw the return of Channel 4's sitcom, Fresh Meat. For the past five years the show has followed six students – a posh one, a posher one, an old one, a Welsh one, a Playmobil one and a drug dealer one – who live in a shared student house in the heart of Manchester. Written by the creators of Peep Show, it's always been prepared to engage in the down and dirty realities of being a student. Drugs? Just a few! Booze? You betcha! Sex? You could say that!
When the first series began, it was easy to see why it worked. Back in 2011, two years before higher fees came into effect, the prospect of an undergraduate degree still meant £2 pints in SU bars, keys of ket in cubicles, kebabs on kebabs, and every single episode of Homes Under the Hammer ever. It was, in a way, the moment before the idea of being a student in the UK began to change forever. The last vestige of sacking off lectures because you're still sweating out the night before; of going to every bar in town and getting shit-faced under the guise of "pub golf"; of sicking up nine Vodka Rev test tubes and then going back for more.
Since then, times have changed, rapidly. Only yesterday, new statistics revealed that students are drinking less booze and more coffee. The results of another poll also suggested that students are more interested in chess clubs than they are nightclubs, with only 37 percent saying pubs are an essential service.
Maybe it's because the creators of Fresh Meat are about 45, or perhaps it's a bit much to expect a TV show about students (all of whom look about 30 anyway) to reflect real life, but watching the show's return to television last night made me realise we need to rethink our idea of what students look like. The scattered ash-trays, dirty sheets, gone off food and regularly rotating sexual partners are fast-becoming old-fashioned stereotypes. Students today are spending way too much money on fees to risk waking up on exam day with a foot in a pizza box and a used condom hanging off the edge of their desk.
Yet, apart from Howard – who, after a decade of failing to graduate, is suddenly studying up – none of the house members have even considered their exams or final essays, despite being 11 weeks away from the culmination of a £27,000 degree.
Which brings us onto Vod.
Vod, for the entirety of her university career, has resolutely not given a single fuck. That's her whole thing; it was probably written in the cast list on the first script: "Vod – gives even less fucks than no fucks; minus fucks." She's supposed to have cheated, borrowed and snorted her way through three hedonistic years, only to find now, shocker, that all that fun doesn't come for free.
She's now realised that she's in a shitload of debt: £70,000. Sounds astronomical, right? How much gak and Tesco Finest tortellini has this girl been getting through? But when you consider the finances of today's students, taking into account tuition fees, maintenance loans, bank overdrafts, loans from parents and – in some cases – borrowing extra cash from payday lenders, it's not that surprising. This plot is positioned as outlandish excess, but is in fact depressingly close to the reality of the student experience.
Then there's Jack Whitehall. Jack "Russell Group University" Whitehall. Jack "I'm probably literally named after" Whitehall. Jack "I'm so obviously here because of my dad I may as well have a chat show with him" Whitehall.
He does well at poking fun at hooray-Bristol types who go to university just to keep busy between ski seasons and Cannes. However, in real life, Whitehall's character is not a posho oddity, but increasingly what the average university student looks like. More than anything, last night's episode – in which his brother Tomothy visited to pressure Whitehall's JP into knuckling down for his finals and deciding on a career – played into fears of elitism in higher education. His character may have started off as a caricature of one type of student, but with the cost of education as steep as it is now, he is fast looking like the future of our universities.
It's not that Fresh Meat is a bad show – the cast are mostly fantastic and the gags are solid – it's just startling how its understanding of the student experience has become so out of touch. The show has managed to become a period piece within its own short life-span.
Still, you can understand why they wouldn't want to make the show too realistic. Imagine what the student show of tomorrow will be like. A business management undergrad who hilariously turns up to lectures on time on a fold-up bike. The kooky philosophy masters student who files her notes alphabetically as opposed to chronologically by lecture. The daddy's boy who applies for a grad scheme with BP and, get this, gets a place on their Integrated Supply and Trading programme! And maybe an older student, who hasn't graduated in ten years, telling fanciful tales about the "party pills" and water pistols full of tequila of yore, and being told he's making it all up.
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