Central to the debate about the value of a university education - and indeed a crucial factor in the imminent discussions about tuition fees - is student debt. Many graduates now leave university more than £20,000 in debt, and it is feared that the prospect of such big bills deters potential students, especially those from the working classes.
Student debt is a serious matter. As the National Union of Students and other critics of fees rightly observe, many of those now making policy enjoyed a free university education and even a grant to cover the costs of living. The modern world of study in this, as in so many other respects (larger classes, less attention), seems unfair.
Apart from making the obvious points about the unlikelihood of the taxpayer funding a mass higher education system (rather than one catering to less than 10 per cent of school-leavers, as was the case 30 years ago), I would like to suggest another cause of student debt - a luxurious lifestyle. Given the sitcoms, novels and stereotypes about penurious student living, this may sound like a cruel jest. But the stereotypes are outmoded. Most students now do not live the lives of their (supposedly better-off) forebears; they lead much more materially comfortable existences.
Take the student house, for a start. A generation ago, amenities were few in older Oxbridge colleges and provincial halls, still fewer in rented private houses. In one I rented, the "carpets" were held together by accumulated grime, and the furnishings would certainly not have been accepted by any local charity. Now nearly all university halls provide en suite accommodation and, as I discovered first hand when I rented out a house in a university town, it is "Posh Pads" (the name of the agency) that are a requisite, with two bathrooms and broadband access essential. The typical student house is no longer that of The Young Ones, more like an English version of Friends - a cool backdrop for cool lives.
And expensive lives. In the town where I live at weekends, students pour not from Aldi but from Waitrose, with bottles of wine and champagne as well as bottled water (bottled water!), expensive foods and snacks. Taxi drivers lament the vacations, when their trade is depressed and whole parts of the city lose their bar and restaurant customers (I can hardly remember going out for dinner as a student). Student homes are often equipped with large LCD TVs, Sky boxes and, as burglars have been quick to spot, several high-end laptops per dwelling, offering richer pickings than normal domestic residences, including those of lecturers.
In another university town where I live for part of the week, I queue behind students who often spend more than £5 on a snack lunch at Marks & Spencer before boarding the bus. On the journey to campus, some are plugged into the latest and fanciest iPods, while many more spend the half-hour on mobile calls at peak times. On that campus, the (costly) coffee bars are crowded all day as students queue to consume four or five cappuccinos at nearly £2 a time, along with freshly squeezed O.J. and smoked-salmon sandwiches. As I pass them on the stairs, students are often on mobile phones booking travel or concerts with their credit cards; last year I spotted a handful of gold American Express cards.
At my own university, the undergraduate lifestyle is less lavish and the students less well off. But my travel to many university towns that attract good undergraduates makes manifest the fact that students now live an upper-middle-class lifestyle. While for many that is doubtless financed by the bank of mum and dad, for those less well off but understandably anxious to keep up with their peers, the inevitable consequence is debt - and substantial debt at that.
Of course, inequality has always been a feature of the student body. As someone who was a working-class student at Oxford, I do not need to be reminded of that. But years ago the inequality felt less pronounced as even (most of) the wealthy seemed as concerned to fit into what was then a modest student lifestyle, rather than flash their cash. We should not ask our students to return to the fleapits of an earlier age, but a bit less luxury might mean a lot less debt.