'It's OK, Mum. I'm only spending Pounds 5 on food.' Olga Wojtas talks to Scottish parents worried about funding their children through university
STRATHCLYDE University has pioneered information sessions for the parents of prospective students as well as for the students themselves. But its Hand in Hand programme, launched in 1993, has had to add extra seminars this year to cope with the 1,400 parents anxious to find out about the proposed new funding regime.
"Money is the predominant issue," said Bill Johnston, Strathclyde's coordinator of learning and information resources. "A lot of parents are very concerned about their kids going into debt."
Student support research officer Lin McLean, who presents the sessions on student finance, says there is a particular aversion to debt in the West of Scotland.
"You don't have something until you can afford to pay for it. The recruitment numbers don't seem to be drastically affected, but it will be interesting to watch the take-up once parents understand a bit more."
She is worried that many questions remain unanswered. This concern is personal as well as professional, since her younger son will begin a course at Glasgow School of Art this autumn.
"I probably know as much about student finance as anybody in Scotland, and I don't know what the situation is going to be in terms of loans and fees in October because nothing is really certain. I would like to know when I'll be told how much is going to be necessary, and when and how the fees are going to be paid."
This round of seminars has also revealed a growing parental interest in the quality of higher education, she says. "I guess that's understandable. If parents are investing in their children's education, they want to make sure they get value for money."
There was distinct muttering among the latest audience of parents when Ms McLean explained that if the residual parental income was less than around Pounds 17,000 the student would not be liable for a tuition fee contribution, while they would have to pay the full Pounds 1,000 if the residual income was around Pounds 26,000.
There were audible gasps when she said a new student might expect to graduate with a debt of between Pounds 10,000 and Pounds 13,000, with the government quoting the example of a graduate teacher with a starting salary of Pounds 14,000 taking 11 years to repay the loan at about Pounds 33 a month.
She urged parents to keep tabs on the government's approach to student support. "They have been under pressure, and they have had to amend some sections of the bill."
But there were practical steps they could take to help with budgeting, notably asking departments how much books and materials would cost. A prospective architecture student, for example, could face paying some Pounds 500 for materials and field trips.
"Often students have no idea of the real cost of food. If the last time they were in Asda or Safeway's they were strapped to the trolley, take them back and make them look at the real cost," she advised.
Strathclyde's information for parents includes a student income and expenditure planner, income including loan and grant, parental contribution, part-time work and expenditure ranging from tuition fees and rent to travel and entertainment.
"My son put down Pounds 65 for entertainment. I said, 'I don't think so' and he said, 'It's okay, mum, I've only put down Pounds 5 for food'. He could eat a sandwich that contained Pounds 5 worth of food," she said.
"Some of their ideas may be a bit wild, and that's where you as parents can help. You've got years of experience of trying to manage and you can share that with your kids."
CASE 1: COUPLE NEAR POUNDS 26,000 RESIDUAL LEVEL WITH TWO CHILDREN IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Lynda and John McIver's daughter, Ruth, completes an MA at Edinburgh University this year. But she is set to go on to a postgraduate course just as their son, Roderick, starts an engineering degree.
"We don't know what's facing us," says Mrs McIver. "We're near the Pounds 26,000 level but we'll manage. The people I feel for are those who are not able to manage, and therefore the young people are going to miss out. It's going to restrict a lot of potential within the country, and I think we're going backwards, not forwards."
Mr McIver does not object to the principle of contributing towards higher education but believes the goverment's proposals are flawed.
"I feel something of the Australian system would be better, with a higher rate of income tax levied afterwards. I don't think anyone would protest at that. I don't think this system is appropriate or good. I think it will be divisive and cause hardship."
Given the Pounds 17,000 residual income threshold for a contribution to tuition fees, he believes the Scottish Office estimate that 40 per cent of Scottish entrants will make no contribution is "dishonest".
The McIvers have already felt the impact of the financial pressures on students. Their daughter has returned home to Kirkcaldy this year: she has given up her part-time job in order to concentrate on her finals, and can no longer afford to live in Edinburgh. But their son will be unable to commute to his prospective MEng course, and will be obliged to live away from home.
"The other thing I find unfair is that to get an equivalent degree to my sister in my chosen field, I have to study for five years, while she only has to do four," he says.
CASE 2: PART-TIME WORKER
JAMES KING is reacting to the seminar with wry humour. When Lin McLean assures parents that Strathclyde is not expecting students to turn up with a Pounds 1,000 cheque on their first day, he remarks: "You won't be disappointed, then."
And when he discovers that graduates are unlikely to be pursued for their debts after the age of 50, he suggests that his son stay out of the country until then, although he has some anxieties about Interpol taking on a debt-collecting role.
But he and his wife Sandra admit they are worried by the student support changes, and are dismayed to be caught in what they see as the transition period as the United Kingdom moves to a United States-type loans culture.
"We're concerned that this is going to be a greater burden than we first thought. We're not prepared for it," Mr King says. "We've not been able to save up or take out insurance policies or endowments. If only we'd had perhaps another five or ten years, but this has been sprung on us."
Their son is completing a Higher National Certificate computing course which will lead to a first-year place at Strathclyde. Mr King is working part-time, but seeking a full-time job, and he sees a degree as boosting his son's chances of full-time employment. His son's higher education will undoubtedly place a burden on the family finances, but it is one they are determined to bear.
"This is an investment," he says. "The government knows you'll cut down on the finer things in life, that you won't go a holiday. But it's daunting to think whether you can you finish what you've started."
CASE 3: MIDDLE INCOME FAMILY
"Am I alone in my concern that I don't want my son to start working life with a Pounds 12,000 debt?" asks teacher Janice Carlile. She and her computer manager husband, Alan, both Strathclyde graduates, are determined to underwrite their son's law degree, although they are likely to ask him to take out a student loan which they will then try to invest.
"We're in the middle income bracket where we're not going to get help, but we're not loaded," says Mrs Carlile. "We'll make the sacrifices."
They had not bargained for tuition fees, but anticipated growing contributions towards higher education. They have therefore been setting aside money which they had hoped would fund two children through university courses. "But we'll be lucky if it does one," says Mrs Carlile.
Mr Carlile is concerned that the costs will keep rising. "What worries me is what the tuition fees are going to be in subsequent years. They're Pounds 1,000, a quarter of the full cost, but how long before they're Pounds 4,000?"
"And when Stewart leaves, he'll be carrying a debt. How does that affect his credit rating? I really find it quite terrifying for these kids."
WHAT PARENTS THOUGHT ABOUT THE FINANCIAL SITUATION
Do you feel you require more guidance on student finance?
"Yes - quite a bit" "When and how tuition fees should be paid."
"There seems to be lack of info from government sources as yet."
"Presentation was fine, only more clarity from the government."
"Get your finger out, Tony Blair."
Which aspects of the new arrangements concern you most?
"The uncertainty relating to the current transitional arrangements preventing medium-long term financial planning."
"Pounds 10,000 of debt before you even have a job!" "The inequality of the system pre-1998 and post-1998. Born too late."
"The entire moral issue. Encouraging young people to regard debt as the only means of finance."
"Total amount I will have to pay - when and how!?" "That we got such short warning of the change. Unless you are financially secure, these changes are frightening." "The heavy investment and commitment that will be required from now on."
"The unfair aspect of demanding contribution towards tuition fees. The removal of education, free at source, is objectionable."
In what ways do you feel the university can help you?
"None, because parents are now being expected to finance offspring " "Help with budgeting for these costs."
"Evenings like this that removes a lot of the mystery, especially for people who did not attend university in the past."
"Provision of specific facts and information related to student loans and means testing. Alternatively, information on where to obtain this."
"Ensuring that students and parents have as much info as possible, as soon as possible, about all expenses."
"Support campaigns to return to 'free' education."
"Fight the Bill."