As is normal at this time of year, the population of Manchester has just swelled massively. 300,000 people come to this city from all over the UK, Europe, and the rest of the world. At this point, UKIP supporters are saying, “I knew it!”

But no, it’s just that the students are back. A significant number will be first year students, many of whom will never have been to this city before. This brings me to reflect on when I first came to Manchester as a student, back in 2001. It was a different time in many ways. We had a Labour government, there were no austerity measures, and I had hair.

There have been changes to Manchester as well in that time. When I first moved here, both Piccadilly train station and the gardens were building sites, in a state of chrysalis. There had been huge investment in regeneration, and the process of this was still ongoing. I remember wondering what the whole city would look like once it was finally finished. Over the years I’ve learnt of course that this process never ends and there is always some aspect of improvement (or inconvenient wasting of public money, depending on your point of view).

But, aside from that, the sights of the place blew me away. Brought up in a small town on the south coast I was used to natural beauty, but certainly not to the enormity of buildings that surround you in Manchester. I spent most of the first couple of weeks just looking up.

Not that everything was entirely positive when moving here. I went to the University of Salford (before it was called ‘University of Salford: Manchester’, thus denying Salford’s existence as a separate city in its own right). As part of the induction, two police officers spoke to us and made us believe that the entire population of Salford was out to get us. This approach that made you distrust all locals was damaging to say the least, but then within my first month I did get mugged.

Of course, what the police officers were trying to get across was that you needed to make sensible precautions. Walking at night, by myself, along a dark path to an underpass was not a sign of me making sensible precautions. I was still surprised when I found my path blocked by two young lads with hunting knives. You don’t expect that kind of thing in Dorset. Trying to find the balance between concern for your own safety as well as a sense of empathy for the population of one of the poorest parts of the UK is a tough one to strike.

For students in 2014 there are certainly many advantages over my time. For a start, in just 13 years technology has progressed significantly. I didn’t have internet access in halls, but that’s been a norm for years now. No longer do students have to go to a small number of ‘PC suites’ on a Sunday and find that they missed the rush and will just have to wait.

Also, communication technology. Smart phones, Facebook, so many ways of staying in touch, so many ways of finding out information. I bought my first pay-as-you-go Nokia phone in 2001, and I only did that because I realised giving my room phone number wasn’t going to keep me in touch with new friends. But then, would I rather have paid at least £15,000 more in tuition fees, only to go on to find the graduate job market a shadow of what it was, along with huge competition. No thanks.

Not to say there weren’t challenges as well when I went to university. The BNP had made roots in towns like Oldham and Burnley after initiating and then exploiting race riots, leading me to become an activist in the Anti-Nazi League to campaign against them. I might not have been the most politically aware at that time, but I could recognise racism and the need to challenge it.

This initial foray in to student activism led to other campaigns. As soon the impending Iraq war was looming, over 1 million of us took to the streets of London to demonstrate against the invasion.

So, back then a racist party was emerging and the country was on the march to a disastrous, never ending war. It’s so different now.

Oh, wait…

Chris Tavner