Last month I paid off the last of my student loan.
I was one of the first generations of UK students to pay my own way at university. I paid no fees (they were means-tested in those days, and only about a thousand pounds even if you did pay) so my loan was just the total of three years of living costs in a fairly affordable city. I worked part-time jobs alongside my degree, and also during the summer breaks. And I was fully funded throughout my postgraduate studies. In other words, I was very lucky and fairly frugal, and yet I still had to wait until ten years into my career before clearing the debt.
What have we done to the next generations? Nine thousand pounds per year of fees debt, plus the soaring costs of living (especially renting), adds up to a pretty hefty loan. Most graduates will never pay off their debt, and indeed some politicians like to say it isn’t really debt because large chunks won’t be repaid, but it sure feels like debt to the students!
Meanwhile there’s a real squeeze on postgraduate funding while more and more students are recruited to boost the income streams of the universities. When I was planning for my MPhil and doctorate I applied directly to the national funder (the AHRC) and was judged against the national pool of applicants. Nowadays the funding is allocated to consortia in a manner I don’t fully understand, but I do understand this: It is no longer a level playing field. Weak applicants get funding in one region while strong applicants are denied funding in another region. Meanwhile local funding schemes are often fees-only, meaning that students have to accrue even more debt in pursuit of an elusive career.
So paying off my student debt makes me feel very lucky. I am wholeheartedly grateful to the tax-payers and government funds that made all my degrees possible. However, it also makes me sad, knowing that if I was going through the system now I would be in a very different position, and perhaps would not have felt able to pursue my higher degrees and this career.
Sorry, next generation. We messed up.
Education is a public good as well as a private good. I want my taxes to support students, as I was supported by the taxes of others. Time for a new system, please, or a return to the old.