Students across the UK were shocked and dismayed this week to hear that the first Tory budget is set to hack away at students’ access to higher education once again, scrapping grants to make additional funds available only as a loan.
As a student, I can only say that I am as confused as ever at this government’s agenda: do they want to encourage students to pursue other avenues or simply stifle social mobility? Submission to universities should be made academically challenging not financially challenging.
The slow erosion of students’ rights began five years ago, when students were first hit by the reality of the tough love Tories (though it would be unfair to omit the role of Nick Clegg, former leader of the Lib Dems). If we wanted to go to university, we were to accept a crippling loan, which will be on average around £44,000 for the first generation of Tory Britain students graduating in 2015.
Our higher education system is inefficient, costly, and hostile to disadvantaged students, while remaining over-subscribed. Facebook and Twitter have been rife with people expressing their relief at the government’s move from grant to loan, unable to understand why the tax they pay should be funding students who are just after a good time, not a good education.
Difficult as it may be to approach this topic from outside the student bubble, I have found it hard to deny that many people I have known over the course of my university life simply did not want to study or go to lectures. Hearing again and again how people hate their course or seeing them go out five times a week and miss morning lectures made even me a little angry at the waste of resources and energy spent upon them.
But what were their alternatives? Back in 2012, when I was deciding what to do after sixth-form, I was not presented with many options. To my eyes, it seemed I could go to university or be unemployed, having no real employable skills. If even members of my family, with years of working experience, struggled to find a job, what chance would I have? Our sixth-form hosted university fairs, we had General Studies lectures about remote philosophical questions concerning our futures, but practical advice was woefully absent.
That’s because our system in England does not have many other options. In the Netherlands, for example, there is a more complex system, whereby you can study journalism, nursing and other professionally oriented courses at a slightly lower level. In Britain, we do have vocational studies, but usually for very practical courses like mechanical engineering or hairdressing, which do not have the same weight as a university degree. In England, you have to study for three years at university to become a nurse, leaving to work in an underpaid field, while shouldering a maintenance loan. In the Netherlands, you can become a nurse after around five years, with more than half of your course consisting of paid internships.
So here you are, 18 and weighing up your options. It can often seem like a choice between being unemployed and stuck in your hometown, or going off to university in pursuit of a new adventure, and never mind the price tag. If we do not give our young people more options, what else are they to do?
I can understand the impulse to discourage people unsuited to academic study from going to university. What I seriously take issue with is doing so with financial imperatives. Changing the loan system alienates students from poorer backgrounds and privileges, as in times of old, the rich, the wealthy and the well-connected, many of whom are less intelligent and far more likely to spend every night in clubs than a skint student from Swindon.
We must make it so that university is once more an institution to aspire to, with hard study and determination the key to the big gold door, rather than cold, hard cash. Southampton is a university with high grade requirements, but I know people who were accepted with far lower results than expected and supposedly required. Is this because the university is understanding, or because undergraduates are just walking cash cows? Why not accept more students? I’m sure that £9,000 is very enticing, and they certainly do not reinvest that amount back into students in subjects like the Humanities.
To me, raising tuition fees and increasing the burden of debt on our students seems completely counter-productive. It encourages universities to lower their standards and accept as many students as possible, it creates a generation of students burdened with debt who will probably never be able to buy a house or contribute to a healthier economy, and it creates more debt for the government, given that we know that the majority of students will never pay back their loan.
There is a movement now to discredit and criminalise the struggling working and middle-classes. We are turning our outrage inwards, to the select few abusing the benefits system (I’m looking at you, Benefits Street) and the students forced to pay huge tuition fees and who are only in receipt a meagre grant. How easily and conveniently our attention is taken away from the millions of tax payer pounds spent subsidising huge corporations that refuse to pay taxes in Britain? How can we so easily forget that the man telling us to cut costs felt within his rights to use £100,000 of tax payer’s money to buy a paddock for his horses?
Give us more options and we would not have so many students wasting their time at university, make university a proud institution again and we would value it more, cut tuition fees, give us more grants and allow us to become a strong, empowered next generation of thinkers and leaders.