I was 18 years old when I first arrived in Glasgow. It was 1997, seven years after Glasgow was named the first European City of Culture, one year after the Gallery of Modern Art opened on Royal Exchange Square (though the traffic cone had been perched on the Duke of Wellington’s head much longer), and the same year a radical little club night called Optimo started spinning tunes every Sunday night at the Sub Club. I knew none of this. I was a born and bred Londoner who had never been further north than York (and that was only once, for about two hours), whose main exposure to the Scottish accent was Ruth in EastEnders, and whose perception of the country that was to be my home was made up of roughly two parts Trainspotting to one part Supergran.
Still, for once in my life I ended up being in the right place at the right time. A student in the coolest (and wettest) city in Britain, if not Europe and possibly the world. My first sight was Central Station in autumn: a Victorian vision forged in glass, girders, and gleaming wood. I had never seen sandstone so blonde nor skies so sad. The smell of chip fat wafted up from beneath the railway bridge, intoxicating to my young nostrils. My friend, also from London and new to Glasgow, and I got a black cab, sparked up Marlborough Lights, and headed west towards our halls. En route we passed a vast gothic building, turreted and towered, presiding darkly over a hill. “What an amazing cathedral!” I gasped through a fug of cigarette smoke. “That’s no cathedral hen,” the taxi driver replied, sparking my lifelong love of being called hen by a particular generation of Glaswegian men and women. “That’s your university.”
This week QS, the higher education data experts, published their annual rankings of the best student cities in the world. The scores are based on factors including quality of life, opportunities for graduate employment, affordability, and the quality of the universities. What makes cities great, in other words, for young people with little money, increasing debt, and an appetite for fun and, oh yes, learning. In top place for the fourth year running came Paris. (The list was compiled before last month’s terrorist attacks though that’s not to say they would have had an impact.) Melbourne, Tokyo, Sydney and London, which fell five places from the previous year owing to the high cost of living, followed. Edinburgh came 33rd. Glasgow, tied with Sao Paolo and Warsaw, came 63rd. Not a bad result, granted, but not as good as it deserved. For this alumni, anyway, Scotland’s second city will always be number one.
First there is the quantifiable stuff. Glasgow boasts two universities in the global top 250, one of which is the fourth oldest in the English speaking world. (And also the one I mistook for a cathedral.) It has a world-renowned art school, of which the city is rightly and fiercely proud and that seems to churn out Turner Prize nominees and winners at the same rate as the Tennent’s factory brews lager. Art flourishes in Glasgow because artists, many of them ex-students, like living in cities where rents are low, there is a thriving community, and you don’t necessarily need to be middle class to make it. The music scene is similarly DIY and unpretentious. And long before Glasgow was named a world centre of music by Unesco, my generation and the ones that came before it were bowing down to Mogwai, worshipping at the altar of the winking Barrowland Ballroom sign, and heading down the Arches (RIP) at weekends. Everyone always bangs on about the shops, but it’s the clubs and gigs that really make Glasgow. And what makes them? The people. Many of whom are students.
Glasgow has the second largest student population in the UK, and more than that the city’s inhabitants happily co-exist with them. I say this both as a student and ex-student. Also, and this is increasingly important in a Scotland in which student borrowing last year soared by an eye-watering 69 per cent, it’s cheap. Cheap to live, rent, eat, travel, and comparatively to study. Good value, high quality education is one of the reasons why Paris consistently comes out top of the list: in 2014 tuition fees in the city averaged just £1,594. This compares to a maximum charge in the UK of £9,000 for home students and £11,987 for international students. Students need cities that are going to look after as well as educate them. And according to one study Glasgow is the third most cost effective city in Britain for them.
I went to Glasgow to do a degree and ended up staying a decade. 1997-2007: what everyone knows as the Optimo years were also my years. It was a magical place to be in those post City of Culture years as Glasgow slowly shook off its industrial past and became more confident and hopeful and less misunderstood and maligned. Of course bad stuff happened too: I experienced racism, sexism, homophobia, and some seriously dodgy kebabs over the years. But I was also lucky: I graduated in 2001, just before tuition fees came in. My only debts were student loans, which after more than a decade of full-time work I finally paid back.
The great thing about Glasgow as a student city is that it never changed too much and still hasn’t become awash with bearded hipsters on fixies, aeropress coffee makers, and the kind of money that pushes costs up but doesn’t actually benefit the people who have to pay them. The city’s well-documented and long-established problems continue to co-exist with the success stories, often on the same street, and usually in some grand old building with a few tufts of foliage poking out of it. Glasgow has somehow managed to become more rather than less itself since I went to university. And as a student it had a similar effect on me. Glasgow ended up being the place where I became myself, and you can’t pay a city a higher compliment than that.