Watch out, large piano overhead

May 12, 2006

As he finally pays off his student loan, Kevin Fong recalls the good old days of making his bank manager cry and ponders the impact of top-up fees

This morning I watched my little boy rolling around on his play mat. He's six months old but already well ahead of the developmental curve.

I know every parent is prone to this delusion, but there's hard evidence of his prodigious abilities.

At barely 25 weeks old, not only is he able to feed himself but he's also starting to show a healthy interest in reading. The uncharitable casual observer would argue that what I mistake for intellectual prowess is merely him stuffing pages of Heat magazine into his mouth, but as far as I'm concerned that just gets him extra marks for multitasking.

Anyway, it got me thinking that he might one day be the kind of kid who earns himself a place at university, which got me all glowy inside - Juntil I considered the large pile of cash we will need to get him through.

I liked university so much that I went twice. When, after three years of astrophysics, I decided to plunge back in for five years of medicine I don't know who cried more, my long-suffering parents or my bank manager. I worked my way through the second degree and committed social suicide by living for some of that time at home with Ma and Pa. Despite all this scrimping, saving and slaving, even in the days before top-up fees, I was still left with a hefty debt. It took eight years, but last month I made my final student loan repayment.

Top-up fees might be necessary and might even turn out to be a good thing, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that they won't transform our curricula or the demographics of our student intake. Already this year we have seen applications to non-vocational degrees take a hit and have been told by the Minister for Education that this is "no bad thing", but is it?

It's difficult to know, and all I can say is that the guys who brought to the National Health Service the happiness and order that we read about every day are unlikely to be so different from the guys who are trying to do the same to higher education. Certainly they seem to use a lot of the same language: competition, excellence, market forces.

I keep hearing that there's no evidence that the prospect of lifelong debt will put people off university. But then again, there's no hard scientific evidence that having a piano dropped on you hurts; it doesn't necessarily mean it isn't bad for you.

There is no way in hell that I would have considered studying medicine, as either a first or second degree, had I been staring down the barrel of five or six years of top-up fees and maintenance with the bullet of life-long debt at the end.

If we're supposed to be encouraging diversity in the students and subjects that we teach, I can't see how top-up fees will help. I went to an average comprehensive school where, statistically, you had more chance of going to prison than to medical school. By the time I was halfway through studying medicine, my dad had retired and my mum was doing the Avon Lady thing to generate some spare income. It got pretty tight at times and, though I'd like to pretend it was all down to me, in truth Mum and Dad bore the brunt and I'll never understand how they managed to make ends meet.

I guess I have to accept that things in higher education are about to change, for better or for worse, and that there are some debts that I'll never really get round to repaying.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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