If you were a university student at any time from 1962 to 1989, you received a maintenance grant; it started off at a little under £400 p.a. and reached £1,430 in 1980. If you needed books for your studies, you could usually afford to buy some of them, rather than traipsing back and forth to your college library to find out if there were copies available for loan (often a lottery if required reading material was on short loan and others had beaten you to the loan desk.)
Then, in 1989, the Conservative party introduced another kind of loan and started a long process whereby state funding for education could be progressively eliminated; the first move in a policy shift which three of the UK political parties have encouraged. With a few (reasonably) honourable exceptions, ministers and MPs have conspired to make higher education something you have to pay for, rather than something that might be considered so fundamental to a civilized society that it should be – if not free – than at least not productive of crippling and possibly lifelong debt.
For the majority of students, it was to be the crudest kind of double whammy. Instead of a grant, you pay all of your expenses. And a new expense: annual fees.
The timetable is relentlessly onward and upward. From 1998, when Labour introduced fees at £1000 p.a. through 2003, when they reached £3000, and on to 2010, when the Coalition government allowed a maximum of £9000. Few universities would charge that, we were told, and those that did would “look rather silly”. Today, 98% of them have decided that it’s fine to look silly.
One of the rallying cries of those who have worked hard to make students pay for their education ( Blair, Blunkett, Clegg, Cable, Willetts, Cameron, Osborne et al ) has been “there’s no payment upfront”.
Indeed, I remember pinning a student loans company statement on my wall, so that it would be seen by all of the students who came into my office. I recall one sentence, truly more insulting to one’s intelligence than most I have ever come across: ” ‘the only resemblance to a loan is that you have to repay the money”. Such wordplay is common in defenders of student fees and loans: David Willett once told the BBC that he would be “terrified” if a child of his left university with a £25,000 credit card debt, but the new system was “in between” a credit card debt and an income tax, and “by and large a good deal”.
Lord Browne (then the head of BP) said in his 2010 review of university funding
“these are measures to protect the weak and make sure the strong pay their fair share.” I have to admit that I find it hard not to translate this Orwellian statement as “these are measures to sustain the wealthy and make sure the weak pay more than their fair share.”
Not long after he sold moneysaving expert.com for around £87 million, Martin Lewis, writing in the Daily Telegraph in August 2013, took the semantics further down the line. The big problem, he argued, is our acceptance of the use of the word “loan” to describe what is given to students. Apparently that’s a bad word:
“In some countries around the world that use our student finance system, repayments are called a contribution‘..the solution is to change the name“. How similar this subterfuge is to the trick played in 1981, when Windscale became Sellafield to help people forget the toxic fallout from the potentially catastrophic fire that had raged in one of the nuclear reactors. What’s in a name?
Quite a lot, I would suggest. We would do well to reflect on the not infrequent use, these days, of the word customers as a replacement for students.
Time and again, students – and their parents – are told that there’s nothing to worry about because (a) you’ll earn more as a graduate than would otherwise have been the case and (b) you only have to start repaying the loan when your earnings as a postgraduate reach a certain level. Well, (a) is only sometimes true and (b) ignores the fact that interest is charged on student loans.
Students from wealthy families, or who become wealthy themselves, are able to pay off their loans without years of accrued interest. Those who do reasonably well – not wealthy, not poor – end up paying a lot more. And graduates who never manage to “do well” for themselves have to live with the knowledge that they will have to wait 30 years before their debt is cancelled. That is another kind of burden. Notice, also, the flawed logic in the argument often advanced that many graduates will never have to repay their loans because they will never earn enough to trigger repayment. This “reassurance” sits uncomfortably alongside the “consolation” offered to indebted students: David Willetts, then Universities minister, said in 2011 that graduates could expect to earn £100,000 more over their lifetimes than those who had not been to university. (This happens, by one of the ironies of life to which politicians seem often to be insensitive, to be close to the total amount which a typical graduate, in the years to come, can expect to repay over the 30 year period of his or her loans.
Mr Willetts is often referred to as “2 brains Willett” because there are people who consider him to be unusually intelligent. Well, if I had two brains, I would have to use one of them to contemplate the worry-free career of low earners, waiting for the day when their loans are cancelled, and the other to marvel at the ease with which high earners would manage to pay them off. But I’d have to make sure that none of the synaptic connections in one brain ever made it across my head to those in the other. To be fair to him, he has recently argued, correctly in my experience, that too many universities prioritise research over teaching. Sadly, this simply emphasises that today’s students may be paying for less contact with staff, and less feedback for work they submit, than earlier generations for whom such definitive features of university life were free. There could be a disappointment lying in wait for many: you don’t even get what you pay for.
Supporters of fees and loans delight in pointing out that applications have not gone down since higher education became something you pay for. This heartless indifference to the recruitment of a generation of indebted young people is perhaps possible because the reassurance offered by wealthy politicians is, at least for now, effective: so many young people have an understandable and commendable commitment to get the best possible education. It is difficult to believe that the next generation will be able to ignore what will have happened to many of their predecessors.
Is there, for some, a hidden agenda behind the drive to make it terribly expensive to go to university? Could it be that the enthusiastic support for crippling student fees signals a desire to revert to the class-driven inequalities of the early part of the 20th century, when only the rich could afford a proper education and the under-educated, or uneducated, lower orders could only to aspire to servitude? The effect of student debt will be to drive down even the quality of life for many of those who graduate. Already, in 2012, the BBC reported that given interest charges a student would typically repay, eventually, almost £80,000 for a 3 year course.
Don’t even try to imagine prospects for two students, each with such debts, who decide that they like each other enough to embark on a life together. How can we expect young people to put together a career even faintly resembling that enjoyed by the generation of MPs who brought all this about – none of whom paid fees, none of whom had to take out student loans?
It is important to remember that only 2% of young people went to university in the years before the 2nd world war. Part, at least, of the thinking behind the introduction of charges for studying and thereby obtaining a degree was the idea – in itself a laudable one – that a university education should not be something available to a privileged minority. But the same politicians who espoused this view also tended to insist that with ever rising numbers, degree courses would require more funding than the state could afford. The simplest and intellectually laziest conclusion was to insist that the student could.
There is a hidden assumption lurking behind the exhortation to so many school leavers to go to university at all costs.
Hidden within the usual claim that you will, if you are a graduate, earn more money than those who reject the idea of going to university is another, unsavoury idea. It is that if you are “only” a plumber, an electrician, a mechanic or any other kind of “worker” then you are somehow lower in the scale of human achievement than a person with an honours degree. By 2013, just under 50% of young people were enrolling on degree courses. Some of them might, without the ceaseless propaganda in favour of getting a degree, have embarked instead on the important, worthwhile, valuable training courses that ensure that those of us who like to think of ourselves as educated or cultured or whatever other term we use to bolster our self esteem, can actually make our way around the world – or just our house – with lighting, warmth, transport, food and all the other accoutrements of a modern existence.
My studies have been in philosophy – not the most practical of subjects – and I spent my working life helping young people obtain degrees; which might perhaps make me the last person to have the right to question the trend toward degrees for all. But my real purpose is to insist that all those professions – let’s definitely call them that – which sustain the working lives of those outside of the university system are just as worthy of our respect. Of course we need scientists, medics, academics (I have to include those – I was one) and all the other university-trained people who furnish society with life-enhancing features. But when the lights go out; when our car breaks down; when our roof develops a leak; when God knows what else happens that we can’t fix: then we turn to that army of people with practical skills without whom we would not be able to live with any dignity at all.
They are valuable members of society: it’s time to stop telling young people who might want to join them that they are diminished if they don’t go to university. We should help fund their studies too. There would almost certainly be a reduction in the number of young people who study for a degree. And we could then help fund their aspirations also. Where would the money come from? It may be unrealistic to dream of a return to wholly state-funded education. But we could perhaps start by bringing an end to tax evasion. And at the risk of seeming to be economically illiterate, I can’t help remarking, not entirely mischievously, that the total student debt reached £46 billion in 2013. A similar amount to the current estimated cost (£42.6 billion) of the High Speed Train project to enable people to get to London half an hour or so more quickly than they presently can. That’s a lot faster than the time it takes to repay a student loan.
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This post was written by John Lane