Tuition fees are bankrupting my generation. They have turned education from a social beneficence into a purely functional pursuit, a means by which young people study in order purely to become employed and wealthy enough to shed the absurd surplus of debt they acquire whilst studying. University culture has transformed from a true culture of learning into one of hostility and sheer, unguarded functionality. Science and business-related degrees are increasingly the only things students are considering, especially poorer students. Arts degrees are becoming a joke and an education in reality available only to the rich kids (see the charity Arts Emergency who fight for equal opportunity in the Arts for students of all income backgrounds – http://arts-emergency.org/about-us/). Who on earth can afford a degree that does not guarantee instant, high-income employment when the average amount of debt students have on graduation is £60,000?
To people in most other countries around the world, the notion of being £60,000 in debt by the age of 21 is beyond ridiculous. Last year I met a group of Belgian students at the University of Leuven who laughed when I first told them that this was the case in England, because they thought I was joking. The average amount a Belgian student pays per year is €610 in tuition fees and between €250-€500 a month in rent. But my generation’s graduates, already burdened with crippling debt, are heading into one of the most stagnant graduate jobs markets in recent history. 1 in 10 graduates are unemployed six months after leaving university, and a third of those who do find work are doing something that does not require a degree. I met a fellow English student here at Bristol who told me that he worked in a shoe shop before starting, and as he left for Fresher’s he was replaced by a Bristol English graduate. To what end does anyone study other than to pay back their loans?
And why do we even have this quagmire? Tuition fees were first introduced in 1998 in order to expand and ‘revitalise’ UK higher education. With New Labour’s policy came the end of the principle of free higher education, and since the tripling of fees to £9000 in 2011 the coalition has incurred the increasing likelihood of a vast, perilous black hole in public finance. David Willetts, the universities minister at the time, explained the reasons for the rise. The cost of hundreds of thousands of student’s degree courses was, Willetts said in a speech at Oxford Brookes in June 2010, a “burden on the taxpayer that had to be tackled”, and, he then went on to claim, “The so-called debt [students] have is more like an obligation to pay higher income tax.”
Willett’s language indicates the delusions of himself and his fellow high-ranking policy-makers. That he can refer to it as “so-called debt”, as if it is not real and deadly, and that he feels he can justify such absurd debt for the young of this country by calling it “an obligation to pay higher income tax” is obscene. That he even thinks the average graduate will be able to pay it all back is ridiculous in the first place. He does not even suggest a concern that young people from low-income backgrounds will but put off a university education and HE will become an exclusively high-income, middle class pursuit. This is already happening in Arts subjects. But the delusion is widespread and severe: last year Oxford University vice-chancellor Andrew Hamilton called for a rise to £16,000 a year, on the basis that higher education should be fully marketised and more than the current 1.4% of GDP should be invested in it when the international average is 1.7%. Yes, more than that amount should be invested in HE, but it must not be the already debt-ridden students who pick up the tab.
But what is most infuriating about the Conservative argument that tuition fees are taking the burden away from the taxpayer is that money is still coming from the government in the form of loans, and it is not being paid back. In February the Commons Public Accounts Committee said that the total value of outstanding student loans was forecast to quadruple from £46 billion to around £200 billion by 2042 in today’s prices. So to what end are tuition fees working? The results of government policy are clear. Student loans are disappearing into this vast black hole, which is so painfully obvious when one considers the state of the jobs market, graduates are being left underemployed and my generation is becoming bankrupted.