What's the point of university?

Hannah Langworth sees a new play asking some big questions about today's student experience

Drinking, long discussions about not very much, spending all day in your dressing gown - new drama Knock Yourself Out by playwright, entrepreneur and recent University of Leeds graduate Tom Holloway contains many stereotypical student activities. The play depicts a day or so in the life of a collection of undergraduates, recent graduates and graduate students, "knocking themselves out" with a frantic merry-go-round of alcohol, drugs, sex, and dreams about their futures.

The play's fast-paced and farcical action, involving cross-dressing, masks, cocaine and a guitar, is an undoubtedly exaggerated version of campus life, but the overall impression it gives of how the world looks to students and recent graduates feels like an accurate one. The play's characters are at various stages of readiness for what lies beyond university. Some, like artist Jono and graduate student Billy, are working hard, largely successfully tackling their problems, and encountering some opportunities. Meanwhile others, like simultaneously hedonistic and mournful Roger, played by Tom himself, seem to be working equally hard on avoiding employment and self-destructing. But their actions are all firmly set in a graduate landscape that can often appear to contain few chances to progress, and where time spent studying poetry or the social habits of chimpanzees can seem as much of a hindrance as a help to your future career prospects.

Tom's conscious of the dislocation some students feel between their university experience and the real world: "We go from school, having done GCSEs, A-levels, going through UCAS. We turn up at university, get a degree with a piece of paper, and suddenly, what?" Tom thinks that more university degrees should include compulsory work placements, enabling graduates to move more quickly into a permanent job when they graduate. "If you're coming out of university without those placements and then do two years of trying to find placements," he says, a position that some of his characters seem to be heading towards, "it's five years of no money, and it's hard."

The play is based on Tom's own university experiences - "every character is a formation of a number of people I saw at university," he says, though he stresses that Roger is "definitely not me!" The play's focus is firmly on social rather than professional life, but Tom himself took a businesslike approach to university: "I set up an event production business," he says "and spent most of my time running it...I was incredibly proactive, unlike some of the characters in the play."

But Tom doesn't dismiss the social side of university: "There's no doubt that it was the best years of my life and I can't deny the value of that. I loved being there in that environment." This affection for this time is detectable in the play as, among the practical jokes and banter, there are a few warm moments, particularly those between Roger and songwriter Nicola, that reflect the fact that students often find lifelong friends while studying for their degrees. And Tom sees professional as well as personal benefits to this aspect of student life: "I think that was one of the huge values of university, finding the like-minded people who I'm working with now." So perhaps there is a good reason for emulating the play's characters now and then, and watching daytime TV with your friends rather than filling in that application form.

Knock Yourself Out runs at The Courtyard Theatre in London until 24 March, excluding Mondays.

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