Why I fear debt will make women rethink plans to study at university

March 21, 2003

Debt levels are already bad enough for women. Despite equal opportunities legislation, women still earn on average less than men, and there is no sign that this is changing, hence it takes longer for women to pay off student debts. My 26-year-old daughter earns under £13,000 and is still trying to pay off a loan of £5,000. How does the future look for graduates like her once £3,000-a-year fees kick in?

Top-up fees could well widen the gap between men and women, and one consequence of this will be for women to rethink the desirability of studying if it means spending years paying off a loan.

For years, I have taken part in debates about why women's career patterns are so different from men's. In universities, the disparity is even more anomalous, given the high number of female undergraduates, especially in the humanities. But just as happened in the 1970s, the number of women decreases as you look up the academic career ladder. Despite the move to mass higher education, there are still far fewer female professors than might be expected, only a handful of female vice-chancellors and registrars, and women's salaries are on average lower than men's.

There are all kinds of explanations for this - none totally convincing.

Clearly, time out for children is a major factor. I was one of those postgraduates who wrote a PhD sitting at a typewriter, with one foot rocking a pram. This put me behind in the career stakes for years. A major reason why women have temporary or part-time jobs, which reduces their earning capacity, is the fact that despite the rhetoric about active fathering, mothers continue to be the ones who spend most time with children. Even when they can afford help, the costs of good childcare are high. And not all employers are sympathetic to women's problems. Only the other day I heard a group of professional and business men and women complaining about the problems caused by accommodating women who want flexible working hours.

I have never disputed the need for universities to raise more money, and given government thinking, the only way forward is increased fees. But that doesn't stop me worrying about the implications. What will raising the cost of university education do to families already worried about debt? And what will be the effect on subject choice? We know that debt is having an impact on postgraduate study. If present trends continue, only a handful of UK students will go on to research degrees.

At Warwick University, we are looking behind the statistics to try to learn what makes students drop out and whether we can find ways of intervening before a situation deteriorates. But there isn't much we can do to help with the problem identified by the Liberal Democrats, who have found that it will take female graduates on average three years longer than men to pay back their student loans. While their original figures, which suggested that the average female graduate would never repay her student debt once top-up fees came in, were wrong, the situation is still serious.

There are already signs, albeit anecdotal, that students are starting to question whether a degree is worth the effort and the cost. Once the prospect of repayments stretching into the future looms larger, we can expect many students to do some serious rethinking about the value of a degree. Women, faced with lower earning capacity and the prospect of spending even longer trying to pay off debts, will be thinking especially hard. Didn't anybody think about the implications of top-up fees for women? Not even the female minister for higher education? Sadly, I don't think they did.

Susan Basnett
Pro vice-chancellor
University of Warwick

* Will top-up fees make women rethink their plans to study at university? Join the debate at www.thes.co.uk/commonroom

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