'What can you do? We are just the puppets'

As the first undergraduates subject to England’s new higher fees regime acclimatise to campus life, Chris Parr talks to freshers across the capital about their reasons for going to university, how they are financing their studies and how they feel about tuition costs of up to £9,000 a year

October 18, 2012

Wall of confusion: what did freshers know about fees before applying?

After the protests in which thousands took to the streets to express their anger at the hike in tuition fees had died down, students across the country made up their minds about whether to apply for university.

It emerged last month that 54,000 fewer students had accepted university places in England than had done so at the same time last year, while research published by the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information showed a great deal of confusion over the new student finance system.

Times Higher Education asked freshers how the fee rise was perceived in their schools and colleges.

“A lot of people were quite put off by this big thing of £9,000 a year that everyone was talking about,” says Karl Rogers, who is studying natural sciences at University College London.

“I worked out that it would cost me about £45,000 to do my degree (including accommodation), which is a crazy amount of money.”

He says he believes many of the more disadvantaged students at his school were deterred. “I am lucky to have support from my parents but I think a lot of people did get put off - like those who come from single-parent families.”

In keeping with the task force’s findings, one problem identified by the freshers was a lack of information from their schools about the implications of taking on student debt.

“There wasn’t much information about the fees and how they are paid back,” observes Shabana Khan, a geography student at King’s College London. “There was one student finance lecture and that was it. The message about not paying back until you’re earning a certain amount (£21,000) didn’t get through. If it had, I think a lot more people would have applied.”

Isobel Jones, also starting a geography degree at King’s, adds: “A couple of my friends didn’t go because of the fees. They weren’t going to go to top 20 universities, so they didn’t go because of the cost. They were put off by the headlines.”

Myuran Kuhan, studying maths and economics at the London School of Economics, says many of his friends accepted the debt with reluctance.

“There is nothing we can do,” he adds. “Even though we did protest, or if we protested again, it’s not going to change anything. I doubt whether the government is listening. Some people at my school didn’t mind as much because they were pretty well off compared to me.”

But for Ollie Clare, who attended St Paul’s School, a private school in West London, the fee increase made little difference. “Nobody at my school didn’t go to university, and there was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to go,” he says.

 

Tayiba Rahouffe, 21, from Crawley, West Sussex, is studying criminology at London South Bank University.

“The fee rise does affect you, but if you really want to get somewhere then it shouldn’t stop you. There’s always a way to get around it and it all depends how much you want to do it. If you want to get somewhere, you have to go over obstacles.

“It’s not fair that students above us are paying a third of what we are but what can you do? We are just the puppets.”

Monique Budden, 19, from Canterbury, Kent, is studying media and communications at London Metropolitan University.

“It works out OK because you get more money in loans and stuff. It did put me off but not to the point that I didn’t come - I’m still here.

“The lower fees at London Met [£6,850 a year on average] didn’t really play a part in my decision to come here, it was the course - but it was a bonus.”

Alifya Kapasi, 21, from Leicester, is studying media and communications at London Metropolitan University.

“London Met is a bit cheaper than some of the others, so that’s a bit of a bonus and it definitely impacted on my decision a little bit.

“I got a lot of sceptical looks (about my choice) because of the news headlines (about London Met) and the fact that it isn’t high in the league tables or anything. But I just sort of looked at the course and the modules. I knew what I wanted to know about and decided I would go ahead anyway.”

Natasha Aldridge, 20, from Ingatestone, Essex, is studying interior design at the London College of Communication.

“I talked to anyone who would listen to me about the decision (to go to university) - anyone who could give me advice.

“It was really mixed. Most would say, ‘Don’t worry about the money, just go where you want to go’.”

Karl Rogers, 18, from Muswell Hill, North London, is studying natural sciences at University College London.

“The increase in fees made a big difference but I was quite determined beforehand, before the fee changes were announced, that university was what I wanted to do. I kind of decided that I think it will be worthwhile to take that debt on. In the long term, it should work out.

“At first, £9,000 a year sounds bad but the way you pay it back isn’t that bad. I checked out the structure. What I’m more worried about is if they decided to change the repayments halfway through, or if they start putting more interest on the loans. I’m not sure I’d notice it if there was £30 or £40 going out of my bank account each month.

“Also, it’s OK to make the investment when you’re at a Russell Group university, I think. (It’s) worth it. But I’m not sure that’s really the case at some of the others.”

Mueen Ramzan, 22, from Leyton, East London, is studying computing at London South Bank University.

“There’s nothing really out there at the moment, jobs-wise, and if you haven’t got something underneath you like a qualification, then you can’t find a job. It is quite a lot to pay but in the end if you need it, you’ve got to pay it.

“I’m quite gutted that students in the year above are paying a lot less. We should be paying the same price. I definitely should be. I was doing computing at London Met in 2008, paying £3,145 a year, but I left halfway through my first year. Now I’ve come back and the fees are sky high.

“I know a lot of people who just can’t afford it because of travel costs going up. People coming from out of London every day have to pay £15 to £20 for travel, food and then the fees on top of that. They just don’t think it’s worth it.”

Ramiya Sretheran, 19, from Chigwell, Essex, is studying law and anthropology at the London School of Economics.

“I don’t mind paying the money because I know that if I go to LSE I will make a lot of money in the long term - if I do well, I can pay it back and make a profit.

“If I was at a university that wasn’t that great I would be a bit upset about the fee increase. I know loads of people who decided not to go because of the fees - they could do a lot for the world, but now they can’t because of money issues.”

 

Doing the sums on financial support:

When ministers announced that the cap on university tuition fees would rise to £9,000 a year in England, the coalition also unveiled a new package of financial support for students.

This includes maintenance loans, grants for students from low-income homes and a new system of bursaries and fee waivers alongside tuition loans to cover the cost of the new, higher fees.

Maintenance loans of up to £5,500 a year are available to those living away from home and studying at a university outside London, rising to £7,675 for those who do not live at home and who study in London. Students living at home are eligible for loans of up to £4,375.

But many freshers who spoke to Times Higher Education still see extra income - from family and from paid work - as an absolute necessity.

“I’m working full time as a salesperson for Harvey’s Furniture,” says Tayiba Rahouffe, 21, a criminology student at London South Bank University.

“I wasn’t offered a part-time vacancy so I have to fit my studies in around work so I don’t go broke.”

Isobel Jones, 19, a geography student at King’s College London, says: “My parents put money in my account every month but I’m going to have to get a part-time job in a restaurant. I probably would have had to do that anyway, even if the fees were nothing - just to have stuff to live off.”

For others, parental support bridges the financial gap. Karl Rogers, a University College London natural sciences student, says: “I have the support of my parents so I’m quite lucky. I wouldn’t say they’re really well off but they do have enough money to help me out. If you didn’t have that support, that backing, like some people at my school, then you’d definitely have to think twice about going to university.”

However, Myuran Kuhan, a maths and economics student at the London School of Economics, is making his student support stretch.

“My parents don’t help out but I do get a bit of bursary and quite a lot of loan. Maintenance-wise I’m fine,” he says.

 

George Phillips, 18, from Bristol, is studying biological science at University College London.

“It’s a long-term investment, getting a degree. It’s such an important platform for getting a good job that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and I think it’s pretty essential.

“It’s annoying that people in the year above are paying a third of what I am but that’s just the way it is. There’s no other way, and nothing you can really do about it. There’s a lot of financial support available, although it wouldn’t be available to me.”

Elizabeth Davis, 18, from Norwich, is studying French and Arabic at University College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

“I was always going to go to university, and my parents had always intended me to.

“Because you can get the loan, it was not a big decision. You don’t have to pay it up front … so it’s kind of OK.

“I don’t think I’ll ever really pay it all off, to be honest. That just won’t happen, so the government is the one that’s losing out, really. But I hate the idea that when my dad came to university in London, he had all these fantastic opportunities for free.

“So many British people go - it’s kind of a university culture - so for the state not to support that is not very good.”

Myuran Kuhan, 18, from Walthamstow, East London, is studying mathematics and economics at the London School of Economics.

“I wasn’t that worried when fees went up because I knew that student finance would cover it. But it did hit me a bit more when I worked out how much I was actually going to have to pay altogether - it comes to about £50,000. But hopefully going to LSE will get me a good job in the future and help me to pay it off.

“Maybe I’m better off than people at other universities because this is a very prestigious one - others don’t get that from their degree.”

Shabana Khan, 18, from Tower Hamlets, East London, is studying geography at King’s College London.

“I come from an area that is economically and socially deprived. At my school, 98 per cent are Bengali or other ethnic groups, so most of our parents hadn’t been to university.

“It was very difficult for lots of my friends; the fees were off-putting. We’ve got to a place where education is a privilege, not a right, which I think is unfair. The youth are facing the brunt of the cuts when it’s actually the adults who contributed to the financial mess.

“Now it’s £9,000 a year, for me it wasn’t OK to go to any university - I had to go to a really good one.”

Isobel Jones, 19, from Liverpool, is studying geography at King’s College London.

“I wasn’t happy about the fee rise. I went to a state school so I’ve never paid for education. I just think, at the end of my degree, I’ll pay it back.

“But I don’t really know how it’s going to affect me when I finish my degree. We didn’t get much information from school about repayments - it was only what was on the news, really, at the time of the protest marches.”

Imogen Warley, 19, from Salisbury, Wiltshire, is studying French and Arabic at University College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

“I think the fee change made me take my decision a lot more seriously. It makes you think, ‘I’ll apply myself and work really hard.’ If it wasn’t so expensive, I wouldn’t have gone if I wasn’t 100 per cent sure I wanted to do this course.

“To be honest, I don’t think it’s worth thinking about the cost too much because, unfortunately, that’s just the way it is … but it definitely acts as an incentive to do well.”

Ollie Clare, 18, from Chiswick, West London, is studying Arabic and history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

“Things are getting more expensive, and in some ways the rise in cost helped me out because the increase in fees actually decreased the number of applicants for my course. If you are able to pay, it helped you to get on the course you want, which is kind of unfair.

“But you have to understand that for us (he attended the private St Paul’s School in Barnes, where fees start at £19,674 a year) coming here, paying £9,000 a year … it seems cheap.”

Nick Inglis, 18, from Hammersmith, West London, is studying Arabic and history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

“At my school (also St Paul’s) everyone was going to university because, unless you were on a bursary, your parents were already paying so much money with the intention of you going on to higher education after.

“I don’t personally agree with tuition fees rising. It might sound as though I’m saying that without meaning it because I’m still in a position where I can afford it, but I’ve known throughout my time at St Paul’s how lucky I’ve been to have enough money to go to a place like that and then to still afford tuition fees when they rise. I couldn’t imagine not being able to go to university. It would be terrible.”

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