x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Uni Life: As a student, you’ve simply got to have an opinion

University throws together all sorts of people from different backgrounds, which can result in some pretty heated discussions.

A nice, if sometimes unsettling, thing about Cambridge is that everyone is awfully opinionated. Everyone seems to be falling over themselves to get their voices heard. Living in one place for most of your life, you accept one set of views, hardly questioning them. University throws together all sorts of people from different backgrounds, which results in pretty heated discussions. I remember sitting at the lunch table in freshers’ week to be plunged headfirst into a dispute about the ethics of abortion and euthanasia. Every single conversation between groups of people seemed inconceivably erudite – at dinner later that day, the person sitting next to me turned his head towards me and asked what I thought the fate of the universe was. I gaped and did a passable imitation of a fish.

“The oscillating universe theory seems likely, right?” he said, smiling pleasantly. “Or” – at this point he threw the girl sitting across from us a murderous glare – “do you believe we’ll end according to the Big Crunch theory?” He glowered belligerently, as if daring anyone to argue with his precious oscillating universe theory, while the girl looked mutinous. I shrugged and mumbled that I couldn’t make an accurate prediction because I didn’t have enough evidence – or the least idea of how to infer stuff from evidence even if I did have any.

I don’t know if they actually cared twopence about how the universe will end, considering we will be dead long before. Maybe everyone was simply trying to make intelligent conversation to impress everybody else because it was freshers’ week and first impressions count. At school we used to talk about things like whether we were Team Peeta or Team Gale during lunchtime. In the first girlie conversation I had here, with a neighbour, she whipped out her phone to show me a photo of the guy she liked. “He’s got such a wise forehead,” she sighed. It transpired that her crush was the physicist Richard Feynman. All right then.

Student newspapers here are fiercely vocal and make for refreshing reads. Abuse is hurled at UK political leaders with obvious pleasure. The news of Prince William coming to study at Cambridge was greeted with polls demanding “Do you think he got in on merit?” to which most answered no with delighted malice. Students painstakingly criticise the education system, the health care system, the transport system, the government, the way things are done at Cambridge and, jubilantly, the way things are done at Oxford. Half the print space seems to be devoted to aggressive discussion about religion and sexuality. People aren’t afraid to antagonise.

When fellow students write about sensitive subjects, my first reaction is a slight anxiety for the writers – they would undoubtedly receive backlash. That’s where the fun lies, though. Hesham, who is the opinion editor of the newspaper The Cambridge Student, actively thinks up controversial topics to propound for the fun of it, like the abolition of marriage. It doesn’t matter if he believes no such thing; it’s what stirs up debate that counts. Such widespread expression of opinion is important to crumble the walls of prejudice. I’m forming new views on lots of things, as long as no one asks me about how the universe will end.

The writer is an 18-year-old student at Cambridge who grew up in Dubai

artslife@thenational.ae