Living on borrowed time

July 9, 1999

In part one of a six-week series, students share their views on course fees, student loans and the pressures of dealing with debt. Alan Thomson reports

Earlier this year, more than 30 university students from across Britain took part in a series of THES interviews focusing on

different aspects of their experience as first-year undergraduates, the first cohort to pay fees.

Students from the universities of Cardiff, Plymouth, Strathclyde, Lancaster, Cambridge and Goldsmiths College, University of London, took part, providing a cross-section of the old, new and ancient institutions and covering a broad geographical spread.

Participants were asked for their views on student finances (including tuition fees), paid employment for undergraduates, the quality and cost of student accommodation, courses, university facilities, and the learning environment. They were also asked to give an overview, which they tended to interpret by posing the question: "Is university worth it?"

Money and debt are major worries for today's undergraduates as they come to terms with the abolition of maintenance grants and the introduction of tuition fees.

Undergraduates are expected to pay up to Pounds 1,025 a year for their higher education, excluding any optional course extras, and to cover their maintenance with student loans - up to a maximum Pounds 4,480 a year next year in London,meaning a possible Pounds 13,440 debt upon graduation. On top of this, many students accumulate bank and credit card debts.

One clear message from the interviewees was that, while they are anxious about money, they are pretty much resigned to the situation. Pete, a philosophy student at Lancaster University, appeared the least perturbed. He said:

"Despite the protests and Socialist Worker issues, I think most people had accepted that this would have to come, and so I don't think we feel too bad. The important thing is not to owe anything to the bank ... their interest rates are much worse (than the Student Loans Company)."

Susan, a politics student at Strathclyde University, said: "This is just something you get on with. It's just extra debt to a large total that you're going to have anyway, so you can't worry really."

These views were echoed by Fiona, a foundation engineering student at Plymouth University. However, Fiona's attitude had clearly been influenced by her experience working in a factory before starting her course. Perhaps she realised what life without education can mean for employment prospects.

She said: "To be honest, I really don't mind having to pay back my loan in the future. It's only when you earn a certain amount of money that you have to pay it back anyway. I worked in a factory for about four years before I started my degree, and I left knowing that I was going into studentdom and would be very skint. But I really wanted to do it ... I wanted it so badly I thought, 'whatever it takes'."

Joanne, also at Plymouth studying media lab arts, said: "I don't genuinely think of it as like, 'Oh no, I'm going to be 20 grand in debt and I've got to pay that all off.' I just think of it as a number because banks will get paid regardless. Even if they have to take me to court, I can still say that I can only afford to pay however much."

But such resignation belies real worries of many undergraduates who have no experience of debt.

One of the most impassioned contributions came from Siobhan, studying English and history at Goldsmiths College in London. "I come from the East End of London, the poor bit - the single mums living in council blocks with seven-year-olds preparing breakfast because their dad's in jail or whatever. Those are the young people who aren't going to get to university. They'll be lucky to get to sixth form. Faced with debt for three years (at university) when you're already poor, when you can't even be guaranteed a job at the end of it, I mean, is it any wonder that you're going to think, 'is it worth it?'."

Andy, studying underwater science at Plymouth, said: "It really shafted me because I wasn't planning on coming back to uni until this year, but I had to come back a year early because I couldn't have afforded it (students starting university in 1997 escaped fees)."

Sara, studying human biology at Plymouth, thought that debt was too easy to come by for young undergraduates. She said: "There are a lot of 18-year-olds straight from home who have never really managed any money before. I suppose I'm one of them that ****ed up their first year purely because ... (I was) suddenly living on my own and thinking, 'I'm a couple of thousand pounds in debt'."

Jamie, studying history, politics and law at Lancaster, said: "It's a hell of a burden on your shoulders when you're not guaranteed a job when you leave. I want to try and limit my debt as much as I can. Anything over Pounds 5,000 would be a bit of a travesty."

Other respondents, notably those from wealthier families, were far more relaxed about money. Julia, studying journalism and broadcasting at Cardiff, said: "I'm quite fortunate because my parents are paying for my education. I don't know quite how I'd be able to fund it if I was paying for it myself."

Diane, at Strathclyde studying French, said her parents were paying her tuition fees, allowing her to keep her total borrowing down to about Pounds 6,000. She said: "I am lucky to get parental support. A lot of my friends don't receive help and it can be a nightmare for them."

What was striking among all the respondents was the importance of gaining a degree and the right job at the end of it. Many of them thought that the costs of higher education and debt did little to influence their choice of degree. In other words, they did not reject their favoured course simply because it was unlikely to lead to a lucrative career.

Ronan, studying combined science at Lancaster, summed up the views of many when he said: "I just want to be a teacher. I'm not going to earn big bucks. I'm going to do it no matter what. As long as I've got a steady wage coming in and I can pay off the loan. I'm not too fussed with the level of debt I come out with because I know I'm going to come out with a job ... and I'll pay the debt off."

So despite tuition fees and the increased burden of debt, it seems that for many of today's undergraduates, university may still be about the pursuit of knowledge rather than training for a job.

Next week: undergraduate employment

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