Down and out by degrees

August 29, 1997

Should poorer students shoulder bigger debts, asks Ben Jackson. They do already, says Annette O'Hara, below

NO TLONG ago I was at a graduation, my husband's: a day we had waited nearly five years for and a day we had both strived for. Yet somehow I felt it was marred by the hardships we had to endure to get there.

Beware anyone thinking of going on to higher education. Perhaps if there was at least one good steady income it would have been made easier, but we were not in that position. I have a husband who has brains to burn and could not get a job because he did not have the paper to prove it. Yes, he could have got a job on a building site or any number of similar jobs - and he has had for short periods of time - but these offered no stimulus for somebody who was book mad and liked putting pen to paper.

I am your average housewife: husband, two kids, an odd job here and there. I have a good reputation for work, but what good is a reputation when you break your back doing ****ty jobs for other people, for wages you would be embarrassed to mention, or too tired to play with your children or make love to your husband? That is what life is like doing odd jobs for other people (I can't believe what I have just written, my hands are shaking and my heart is about to jump out of my mouth).

So taking everything into account, we talked it over and decided that my husband should study part-time, go to university, get a degree, get a good job and be happy ever after.

The first two years went according to plan. He did an access course at the local tech, well when I say local it was 30 miles away from Cushendun, on the Antrim coast, where we live. I worked part-time and with that or the family allowance the petrol and the books got paid for.

He worked really hard, and I helped in any way I could. I kept the kids occupied when he was studying, carried a steady stream of coffee, dictated for him - anything. It was a big change in our lives, we enjoyed mixing with people who had other things to talk about than the price of beans or Coronation Street. Life was looking good and sure enough he excelled in everything and got a place to study English in Queen's University, 60 miles away.

A surprise party was thrown in the local pub. It was a big thing for his family, for someone to get to university, it had never been done before. I felt so proud.

I remember the first day well. It felt a bit like sending my eldest child to school: have you eaten your breakfast? Have you enough pens? Phone home. I watched the clock all day and made a nice dinner for him coming home (I feel depressed now because I know what is to be written).

The first year was great. We got the grant sorted out. That was a nightmare, money for my husband, money for me and the children, money to last 32 weeks and some to last 52 weeks, you would need a degree to work it out. However, it felt good, we had money in the bank, (listen to me, "we had money in the bank") and a cash-card as well, we had neither before.

But when my husband became a student, we also said goodbye to all the benefits we had previously relied on. Gone was the housing benefit, free school meals, dental and prescriptions. Although we only had Pounds 4 more than the dole, the rent mostly got paid, we tried not to get sick and the dentist was out. With good management and cutbacks, it would be worth it. My husband's first-year grades were very high.

The first half of the second year was pretty much the same, but then some things started needing to be replaced. Things like cracked mugs were not a priority any more. Bargains can be found in second-hand shops and the children always looked well-dressed. The only thing I was always determined to buy the children was new shoes, but as time passed even this was impossible.

Before we knew what was happening, two bags of coal a week became one. The grocery bill was getting smaller, and bills were taking longer to get paid. We knew that more changes had to be made, but we did not know where. We talked about a part-time job for my husband, but he already spent most of his day travelling and studying. It was easier for me to get work when the children were at school. We decided that we could not eat any less but that the car could run on Pounds 8 petrol a day to get my husband the 120 miles to Belfast and back instead of Pounds 10. We got by.

The third year got off on a bad footing. The car needed changing. The children were getting bigger and it was not just as easy to make something out of PoundStretcher's do for Christmas. My husband's uncle, whom he was very fond of, died. The funeral was in England so even grieving for somebody was an expense. My husband was under a lot of pressure. He felt compelled to be best in his year. But he felt guilty and considered packing it in.

Things were going downhill fast. Near the end we were eating only once a day and little at that. Some weeks we hid from the coal man because he had not been paid and if you went to bed early enough you did not need the fire. It does not matter that we both have had a toothache this past six months and cannot afford to go to the dentist, because in the summertime we will be entitled to dole again and can get them fixed. I can get antibiotics for a chest infection I cannot shift, my husband can get tablets for his hiatus hernia, and the washing will not pile up for three days because I cannot afford washing powder.

Both sides of our families have been a great support. It used to embarrass me when the postman arrived with discreet little envelopes with "recorded delivery" on them - he knew and I knew that it was some bill that had not been paid.

I have become a very hard person - survival is the name of the game. Although I did not resort to it, theft did enter my mind. When the children asked why there was never any nice food or why they were the only ones with no bikes, mad ideas come. It no longer embarrasses us when we have to borrow money from family or when it arrives in the post from my sister without me having asked for it.

In the end we got what we wanted. My husband graduated with first-class honours and a prize for high achievement in his university department. He graduated in a Pounds 4 suit from Oxfam.

We have made many sacrifices to get the degree. If our marriage had not already been especially strong, it might have been sacrificed. As it is, we have sacrificed the possibility of having, for now, our third child. Surely these decisions should not have to conflict with getting educated and getting on. We have sacrificed our self-respect to a considerable degree.

The author's husband has completed a degree at Queen's University, Belfast, which he entered via an access course.

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