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‘I feel conned’: UK students on soaring rates of student debt

Student debt is one of the most contentious issues when it comes to higher education. Two students express their views on how debt affects them  

  • Student finance
Seeta Bhardwa's avatar

Seeta Bhardwa

Editor, THE Student
July 13 2017
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Fifty-seven thousand pounds. That's almost $75,000. This is the estimated level of debt that UK students from less advantaged backgrounds are expected to have on leaving university according to a recent report. Students from more advantaged families don’t really fare much better, accruing up to £43,000 of debt. 

These levels of debt are attributed to the changes in student finance introduced in 2012, when the coalition government froze the salary that graduates need to earn before they start paying back their loans at £21,000 – despite a pledge that this figure would increase in line with inflation. An increase in fees to £9,000 (from just over £3,000) is also a major factor. 

As well as this, the interest rates on student loans that were taken out in England and Wales since 2012 will increase by nearly a third. This is because the rate is tied to UK inflation levels, which are higher than they were when the system was introduced. In fact, from September, the interest rate will jump from the current rate of 4.6 per cent up to 6.1 per cent. 

University could be in danger of becoming a privilege, based to a large extent on how much a student can borrow from the “Bank of Mum and Dad”. It’s a concern that highly gifted and bright students may be forgoing university, put off by the fear of sky-high debts – although university application figures in the UK suggest that there hasn’t been a drop-off just yet. 

However, some students are already feeling the pinch, and with tuition fees set to rise even more, the situation could get worse. Here, two students explain the impact that increased student loans and debt are having on them. 

Tim Smith (not his real name) from Aberystwyth University is studying for an MA in international politics 

I graduated in 2013, having amassed about £24,000 of student finance debt in tuition and maintenance loans, and have just taken out a postgraduate loan to fund my master’s study – without which I would not have been able to afford my living costs. On one hand, student loan debt is relatively easy to ignore – even with the forthcoming 6.1 per cent interest rate hike, the structure of the repayments means that, when I’ve been working, I’ve barely noticed the cost (if I’ve been earning enough to repay anything in the first place).

On the other hand, these huge chunks of debt hanging over our heads are a constant reminder that, as a whole, our generation’s prospects for meaningful financial and material security are, statistically, far worse than those of our parents.

I'm not even close to buying a house – it may never happen – and now I understand that these supposed “cheapest loans you'll ever have” are being taken into account in people’s mortgage approval decisions. Furthermore, the increased tuition fees seem to have brought little improvement in education provision – my university is having to make funding cuts.

When you get into the job market after graduation, work is mostly part-time, precarious, underpaid or all three. I feel conned, and I’ve been lucky, since I avoided the tripling of tuition fees to £9,000, and as a white middle class male have relatively privileged access to the job market.

One of the most galling aspects of student loan debt is the way it’s talked about in the media and in public discourse. Students of our generation are blamed for our inability to afford housing or to find decent work, and our huge debt burdens provide some members of previous generations – who have little understanding of the economic conditions that today’s graduates face – with another stick to beat us with. 

Debbie Hughes is an undergraduate student at the University of Kent studying English and American literature

I think that the rise in tuition fees, student debt and the general cost of university is ridiculous and discouraging to any young person and prospective students. It is easier and cheaper to go straight into work or find an apprenticeship, even though they may miss out on the big “university experience”.

I can see that university is no longer an affordable option for everyone, and if it carries on the same way, it will become only for the privileged – like private schools. I haven’t wavered in my choice to attend university, however, as I value education greatly and even if I had to work several jobs and live on canned soup for the rest of my studies, I would still attend. I never want to let this government take away my right to education by increasing the costs, like it has for some.

I have struggled financially all year, along with almost everyone else I know. I am, for the third time this year, living off my [bank account] overdraft. The costs of rent and living – basically everything that the maintenance loan is meant to cover — are so high that my bank balance is constantly in the minus numbers of my planned overdraft. 

The most I ever spend at university is on food, and when I’m really stretching it, I can spend £40 and make it last a month (by skipping meals obviously). I missed many social activities because I couldn’t afford them, which had a minor impact on my already terrible mental health (although I am grateful that at my university I am able to access mental health services easily).

I rarely receive any financial support from my parents because, although they have a relatively high combined salary, they are also in major debt for other reasons. We have always struggled financially. Student finance doesn’t really take parents’ debt into account when dishing out maintenance loans and assumes that parents are always willing to financially support their children at university. So many students like me have little to no support from parents and a lower maintenance loan.

I voted Labour, and I believe that the government should follow Labour’s plans to tackle student debt. Lowering fees and encouraging people from all backgrounds is essential for a more educated and skilled population. The government that the country barely voted for this year is making a mistake in choosing to take away from, instead of invest in, higher education.

Read more: Finance one of the main causes of student stress

The case studies were provided by The Student Room. 

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