Last week, just under a million viewers tuned in to watch Channel 4’s most recent fly-on-the-wall documentary series, The Secret Life of Students. The show follows a group of twelve freshers at Leicester University, and catalogues the way they deal with the various challenges starting university can bring; leaving home, making new friends, adjusting to a higher level of academia and, of course, the tribulations of juggling a heightened social life infused with the dominant presence of alcohol and the prospect of promiscuous, possibly unprotected, sex.
But what sets this documentary apart from others before it is that the students have agreed to have their tweets, Facebook statuses, private Whatsapp messages and text messages included alongside the events that unfold, adding a unique dimension and interesting narrative technique to the programme. Although slightly distracting at times, the continuous messages flashing across the screen places the show firmly in its cultural context; we live in a world dominated by social media, and the convenience of being able to express your thoughts or get hold of your friends as quickly as possible has had a revolutionary effect on the way we communicate and react to things.
Combining all of these elements together makes for interesting viewing, and it is unsurprising that the show has generated a multitude of conflicting opinions ever since the first of the four part series aired. The review from the Newstatesman, in particular, stressed a distinct disapproval towards Channel 4 for doing no more than simply enhancing the student stereotype in order to draw in more viewers by focussing on the binge drinking as opposed to the more awkward aspects of making new friends. It compared its style to that of the BBC’s Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. A stance like this is understandable if the show is looked at in a two dimensional way; it’s easy to dismiss a lot of it as a compilation of irresponsible decisions, drunken shenanigans, and an obsession with the internet. But it is also hard to miss the very obvious fact that these eighteen year olds are simply growing up; some are higher achievers academically, some may be focussing on their relationships or sex lives, others may be dealing with their own insecurities enhanced by a new environment with new people. Either way, it is likely that by the end of the series they will have learnt a lot from their decisions and their mistakes, and it certainly makes for entertaining viewing along the way; the comparison to Channel 4 comedy Fresh Meat is a much wiser analogy.
It is a good thing that the show is a four part series because it could run the risk of becoming too repetitive after a while. It is unlikely that you’ll find yourself relating to every element of it, simply because your university experience is something that is personal to you. I find the programme to be realistic in the way it highlights specific issues that the majority of students have to deal with in their first year, and the inclusion of the messages and statuses is hugely accurate in depicting the way we communicate with each other. But in order to generate as emotive a response as possible from its audience, certain scandalous aspects are given more attention than others, which can have the effect of making students in general seem irresponsible and immature; in the first episode Aiden’s exploits and contraction of chlamydia received more air time than Lauren’s quest to fit in amongst her peers.
Even if you watch the show and find it completely removed from reality, it is likely you’ll find yourself engaging with a lot of the wider topics and issues highlighted, such as whether students are being adequately prepared for the academic demands of university. The transition from sixth form to university is full of complexities but the independent work load can be difficult to adjust to, and as some of the events of the second episode demonstrated, students often find it hard to prioritise their commitments and can feel a little out of their depth. This in turn can lead to the need to seek fulfillment or at least indulge in a distraction elsewhere. Instead of assuming that, in general, students are negligent towards the academic side of university, I think it is important to look at whether Sixth Forms or Colleges are informing them of exactly how much work a degree entails and how it differs from the style of learning they are used to because, as the show does manage to substantiate, all of the elements of university life are intricately linked.
The Secret Lives of Students is on Channel 4 on Thursdays at 10. Or you can catch up on 4od