x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The romance of higher education: marriages made at university

Finding a spouse is a popular fringe benefit of attending college - it even works for royalty.

Britain's Prince William, right and his bride-to-be Kate Middleton.
Britain's Prince William, right and his bride-to-be Kate Middleton.

It's been a long wait for Kate Middleton - or "Waity Katie" as she was rather unkindly dubbed by the British tabloid press during the recent years of her courtship by Prince William, second in line to the British throne. Having started dating in 2002, when they were both undergraduates at St Andrews University in Scotland, eight years later William had still failed to pop the question.

They were photographed countless times- separately of course - Kate always a blur of perfectly poised fascinator, attending yet another university friend's wedding. But still no ring. That was until November last year, when the moment for which Britain had been waiting finally arrived. The wedding was on, and the country went mad. And it's not just Britain - four billion people are expected to tune in to watch the couple's nuptials on April 29. Never has a last-minute spinach-between-the-teeth check been more crucial.

Before you reach for the bunting, though, let's wind the clock back to 2002, when Kate sashayed down the catwalk in "that" sheer black and gold dress - the one that recently fetched £78,000 (Dh460,000) at auction, having cost £30 to make - at a university fashion show and reportedly caught the eye of the future king. Both were, at the time, studying history of art (though William later changed to geography) - a course for which the number of female applicants reportedly rocketed when it emerged that it was to be William's subject of choice.

Kate saw them all off with a bat of her perfectly kohled eyes and a swish of her immaculately coiffed hair. She and her prince may not have known it then, but marriage was always on the cards: many students at St Andrews are warned in their first week that, according to statistics (who knows whose?), one in six of them will meet their future spouses within its granite walls.

It was thus for Molly and Joe Phelan, who met in the Scottish coastal town as postgraduate students in 2004 when Molly was studying for her masters in art history (she shared some lectures with Middleton) and Joe was doing his PhD in marine biology. They married there in 2007.

"I knew lots of people tend to find their spouses at uni," says Molly, a 29-year-old art historian from California. "St Andrews is a very small town and it's very intimate. You all live there and there are only three streets, so whatever pubs you end up hanging out in, you usually see the same people three or four times that week."

Unusually for couples who meet while studying, it was only two years before the Phelans tied the knot. More common, albeit among undergraduate couples, are the William-and-Kate types who meet when barely out of their teens and, perhaps understandably, choose to date for much longer before settling down.

"The challenge," says Molly, who until recently lived with her husband in Abu Dhabi, "is that at that age plus eight or so years you've changed quite a lot. I was at a very small private university in the US for my undergrad and I saw lots of people date and then marry years later. Those years are pivotal. You're finding your career and discovering what real life feels like. As long as your partner is changing with you then that's fine. Otherwise it can be problematic."

Charlotte Dauman, 35, who met her husband James when they were both undergraduates at Durham University in northern England and dated him for eight years before getting engaged in 2005, believes the transition from university to working life is particularly tricky.

"When you get into the real world and start working," says the teacher, who lives in Abu Dhabi and is expecting their first child, "it's quite different. We found it difficult when James moved to London and had a job in banking, where he worked really long hours. There's a lot of adjusting and changing and growing up rather than just having lots of fun."

Royal-watchers will remember that William and Kate temporarily called things off in 2007. Their reasons were unclear, but perhaps they fell foul of the mid-20s watershed; something that Kate Faber, 32, who met her husband Ben at Leeds University in 1999, knows only too well.

"Being together so long [they got engaged in 2008] has challenges," says the marketing consultant who recently moved to Abu Dhabi. "You start to get quite worried around 25, 26, because if you've already been together for ages it's kind of make or break." Luckily for them it was the former. They married in Cornwall in September 2009.

On the plus side, says Charlotte, there are advantages to having known each other through so many of their formative years.

"We've got so many shared memories and so much history," she says. "The advantage of meeting at university, then not getting married for a while, is that you know how to react to things and how to respond to each other. You're always going to change over time, whether you meet when you're younger or older."

It's a long way from Kathy and Heathcliff in Charlotte Brontë's Wuthering Heights. In fact, says Kate (Faber), the modern phenomenon of very long courtships may just be a response to the pressure from western society not to get married too young.

"I think it's a case of conforming to when people think it's the right time to get married rather than doing what they want to do at the time," she says. "If you're with someone and you're going to be with them, you may as well get on with it."

Meanwhile, for those still unwed and whose education is a distant memory, Molly has some advice: "It's easy to meet people at university because you're always mingling. Whenever people haven't met anyone I always say, 'Go and do another degree; there are millions of people there'."