I was recently in Sunderland for a 3 day meeting in the scope of an European project. The city of Sunderland is located in the north-east coast of England and is crossed by the River Wear. During the Second War, it was heavily bombed and it was reconstructed in the architectural grey style of industrial post-war British towns. Since then, the heavy industries have been disappearing and with the consequent increase in the level of unemployment that, despite recent progress, is still significantly higher than the average for the entire United Kingdom.
Although the distance to Lisbon is not very large (about 1900 km or 1200 miles) it is not possible to make it in less than 18 hours, including flights and airports. During this time we had the opportunity to enjoy some of the many troubles that a twenty-first century traveller has to endure. On the way to Sunderland, our flight from London to Newcastle was cancelled which resulted in the loss of my student’s bag. In the return trip, after an aborted landing attempt, we found the Heathrow airport in an absolute chaos, as a result of the malfunction of all information boards, which lasted for the three hours we had to wait for the flight to Lisbon. The airport worked as a small town railway station with the station master announcing the planes and their gates.
The most relevant fact of this trip was, however, the story of my Sunderland colleagues about the Saturday sessions that the University organizes to present research projects results to High School students. With the decline of the student population, these activities are very common in the majority of European Universities. I found in Sunderland some unexpected similarities with Portugal in the difficulty of showing to potential students the benefits of a university degree. The lack of jobs for recent graduates raises the question whether it is worth studying for 3 more years to become unemployed, but, more worrying, is the low self-esteem that they show when they say: “besides, we don’t have enough brains to go to the University … ”