Party politics, bickering universities, and angry academics. These are not the first things Freshers will think about when considering what influenced their choice of university. For this year’s intake of students, the political decisions shaping the future of our generation have come clearly to the fore. This year Southampton had a startling drop of 7.2% in applications, managing to only recruit 600 fewer undergraduates than last year. Who are these missing undergraduates, and why did government policy affect why they did not choose Southampton?

The lure of a degree is not only the promise of three or more years of hedonistic fun alongside the chance to study what one is passionate about, but also the promise of a “graduate job”: something higher paid and more respected than a continuation of the part-time shop assistant job which funded weekends during sixth form. This seemingly inevitable occurrence negates the intimidating assortment of debt which these years accumulate, and with easily available loans from the government, banks and perhaps parents, students can leave the worrying about debt until after they graduate.

So what happens when the sheer amount of debt students take on becomes too hard to push to the back of your mind? £27,000 in tuition fees alone, over three years, is a figure hard to ignore. Include maintenance loans and interest, and ignoring any other costs which may occur, the average student beginning at the University of Southampton this year is looking at debts spiralling into over £50,000.

According to The Complete University Guide’s debt calculator, a student on a three year course with £9000 a year tuition fees and the basic maintenance loan will land a graduate with a debt of £40, 136. This figure includes some of the interest beginning to accrue, which continues to build up, so by at the end of repayments a degree could have cost students a whopping £56, 409.

A degree could cost students a whopping £56, 409.

If a student is lucky enough to graduate  into a job starting at £25,000 paid annually and rising, the full debt will take an incredible twenty-four years and six months to pay off. Over thirty years this does mean only 3.3% of earnings, yet the sheer length of time and amount of money facing students would be enough to make anyone from a non-privileged background think twice about spending three years studying at university. The flip side to the new debt system is that those whose graduate jobs are not as highly paid, for example with a starting salary of £19,000, will end up paying only £22.060 of their loan back. This amounts to only 2% of their earnings over the next thirty years, and is considerably less than the amount of money they borrowed from the government to fund their studies.

Will half-empty lectures become the norm?

The fact that you’re reading the Wessex Scene right now means that either you were brave enough to take this debt, or perhaps you are an older student feeling a combination of smugness and relief that you avoided the hike on fees. But what about those students who are missing from our midst? Students who perhaps felt too intimidated by the figure of £9000 – regardless of the repayment plans – to even consider going to university? The University has reported that the number of applicants this year was a healthy 34, 422. A rather large number even for a university of Southampton’s size, yet there was still a drop of 7.2%. In terms of students, 2, 657 fewer students decided to apply to Southampton this year. Obviously many factors may have influences these figures, and perhaps Southampton itself has fallen in popularity for other reasons. Yet it cannot be a complete coincidence that the number of applicants fell so sharply after fees were so greatly increased. Potentially, there are 2, 657 students who reconsidered higher education at Southampton because the debt was just too intimidating.

In terms of students, 2, 657 fewer students decided to apply to Southampton this year.

Many politicians foresaw the effect a rise in fees would have on students’ attitudes towards attending university. Nick Clegg himself was famously strongly opposed to tuition fees, saying in April 2010 that “I think it is wrong to saddle young people with £25,000 worth of debt, before they’ve even taken a first step in adult life….It’s so important that people believe what we say and that’s why we have come up with this costed plan, which would remove all tuition fees in six years.” Obviously his plan never quite came to fruition there, a decision which saw the Liberal Democrats anger many who voted for them on this broken promise.

The number of  applications, although there was a sharp drop which is not to be ignored, was described by the University as a “healthy” number in terms of the University itself. Placing worries about those students who put off attending university aside, a more concerning figure is that Southampton has recruited 600 fewer undergraduates than last year. Vice Chancellor Don Nutbeam described this figure as a “wake-up call for the entire university community”. In an e-mail to staff, Nutbeam said “This has been a cruel year for the 2012 intake who have had to deal with increased fees, tough A-level marking, and a one-year artificial set of controls on university access.”

This has been a cruel year for the 2012 intake who have had to deal with increased fees, tough A-level marking, and a one-year artificial set of controls on university access.

Don Nutbeam

Although the drop in students enrolled is echoed by other British Universities, many other British universities actually saw an increase in the number of undergraduates they recruited. Under government reforms, universities are allowed to recruit an unlimited number of the highest performing students (those with AAB and above), allowing some universities to expand. However, it was predicted in March by Michael Farthing, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, who warning that those AAB students without places would be taken by expanding universities: ‘a few self-declared elite institutions able to rely on historical brand prestige to attract applications’. Those universities who lost out have been identified as a ‘squeezed middle’: those unable to attract these top students, but still able to charge the highest fees.

Those AAB students without places would be taken by expanding universities: ‘a few self-declared elite institutions able to rely on historical brand prestige to attract applications’.

Is Southampton part of this ‘squeezed middle’? Certainly our university has a name for itself, recently ranked in 73rd place in the QS World University Rankings and with an Engineering department which is world renowned. Yet the figures show that fewer high achieving students chose this university, whilst Bristol University hope to expand by 600 undergraduates and UCL by 300.

Is it just our University itself that needs to step up its game? Figures from A-Level results also indicate than a drop in the number of A and A*s achieved may have had a part to play, lowering the number of AAB students in Clearing drastically. This drop in results is the first in twenty years, and the government have responded by announcing that next year universities will be able to enrol an unlimited number of students gaining ABB, lowering the boundary for those classed as the ‘highest ranking pupils’.

So try and take comfort in the slightly disconcerting fact that you could have twenty-four and a half years to pay off this debt accumulated through fees, Jesticles and all the things in between. Your years at University are going to be some of the best in your life, so remember to get your money’s worth!

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