The Problem of No Fees Degrees

Monday, 13th July 2009 at 8:00 UTC 5 comments

You might think that, with the announcement that the government is to offer students a chance to study for free, I’d be delighted. But as it happens, I’m not. The deal might sound excellent; you get to study for free and have no student loan. But this is hugely dangerous territory, for reasons that I shall explain.

First off, lets look at the incentives for this. Student Loans don’t work for the government. Many of us students who did Arts degrees knew we wouldn’t be paying the government back, because we aren’t going to be given jobs that will earn us enough money to make us pay. I’m two complete years out of University and I can already say that I won’t be paying any money back this financial year or next, 3 down, 22 to go.

Those who studied so that they could get status and wealth deserve to pay; society has given them a chance to enter positions of domination and they should at least make some contribution towards that ‘luxury’. Earn more than £15k, pay a bit. Earn more than the mean average UK wage, and roughly speaking, you’ll be paying off the whole lot. Now the government has realised the problem in the system; that many of us won’t be paying the money back, and that they stand to loose millions in bad debts.

So lets skip forwards. What’s wrong with a free degree? The parental pressure to take up the deal could be immense. It will split the countries youth into a series of categories: those who can get a free degree away from home (who’s parents can give them about £5000 a year, blank cheque), those who’s parents can afford to keep them at home and are concerned Johnny and Jenny don’t start adult life with a pile of debt, and those who’s parents simply can’t afford another 3 years of looking after the kids, so have to pile them off into the hands of the government piggy bank.

But Lord and Lady Barrington-Smythe have sent Hugo up to Oxford and because they want him to have the best start in life, they’ve told him to sign away his right to a student loan as they’ll be paying for him to stay alive. After all, the conservative students society needs men like their son to give Britain (capital B) hope for the future. Two terms in and they get a worrying phone call from their friends the Dashworths. Lady Barrington-Smythe is pale faced as Mrs Dashworth reports that their son saw Hugo with, shhh, a man. They didn’t pay for this. They have a family name. They’re upstanding Christians (church attendance being irrelevant). It was bad enough when the local council paid for that parade and the government no longer stopped them, they just stayed home and discussed their plans with the head gardener. Why should it happen to them? Hugo will simply have to come home! We’re not paying for him to gallivant around Oxford showing up the family. Home comes Hugo, the disgrace of the family, to face a few months “getting straightened out”. He’s there son, they’re paying for him and they’ll make sure he gets over this phase.

Or then there’s Miriam, who’s going to the local university. She would have gone away, but her parents made her feel guilty. What would be the point? She’d only run up debts, and those might get in the way of God’s plans for her. Miriam was secretly hoping she could get a few hundred miles away, but nope, three more years of pretending. Three more years of guilt every Sunday. I can’t actually decide what it is with Miriam, she might be a Lesbian, chances are she’s just an atheist (and when parents know other CU members, you can’t get away with not showing up), perhaps she’s just a more liberal Christian than them, wants to join the Slightly Christian Marxists and dabble in Quakerism (sorry, couldn’t resist that one).

But what of people from Black Majority Churches and the Muslim community? What of young people trying to escape the clutches of Church pressures? What of women wanting to remove their headscarves, men wanting to shave, and both wanting to explore their sexualities. Or indeed young adults wanting to grow beards or put on headscarves. I remember a rather awkward discussion with a friend at another University and former NUS LGBT committee member. We were both acutely aware of the double-quandary: address the disproportionate amount of black resistance to LGBT liberation and be damned either inaccurately for racism or more accurately, but still rather ironically, for religious intolerance, or ignore the problem as being too sensitive an issue, and damn the many (straight or otherwise) in that community who’s one chance to explore their sexuality lies in their move away to University.

One of the problems is that all proposed models of University funding seem to point more and more towards the parents and not the young people themselves. This might make sense, after all, the parents are the voters and the parents would be expected to pay in many other countries. One solution would be to end the stupidity of the “independent adulthood” situation, whereby some people have to marry or cp to stay in education, as otherwise their parents would be liable to the costs, and can’t or won’t pay for them.

I’ve used a lot of LGBT and religion examples here for two reasons, first, that these are the areas I know most about. Second, that these are often the most extreme cases (and some of these are based on cases I know well). But often most extreme equals most visible, and there’s many many more cases out there where its simple adult independence that is under attack. But either way, its time the government gave us some proper proposals that aren’t just designed to push the social costs onto the poor.


Entry filed under: Community, Economics, Education, Politics, University, Youth.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Monday, 13th July 2009 at 13:06 UTC

    The additional problem of no fees degrees is that people who don’t want to spend money have to take pot luck with their local university.

    I’d actually have been extremely fortunate here, as Sheffield is one of the leading electronics departments in the country. It does mean that there’s no way I’d have left home, as an opportunity to go to a uni that good and pass up on fees (especially at their new, £3000 rate) would have been too good to pass up. However, if your local university is a laughing shop, your educational prospects are rather stunted.

  • 2. Lois  |  Monday, 13th July 2009 at 14:10 UTC

    What about those people who live too far away from any uni (and such places do exist) to live at home? Rather unfair on them, isn’t it, since they don’t have any choice but to move away from home, whatever their financial situation.

    • 3. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 13th July 2009 at 15:42 UTC

      In a sense, they would be no worse off than now. But that isn’t to say that the government doesn’t plan to make their lives considerably more difficult with future announcements of changes. I also worry for those who end up with large “mainstream” debt as a result of choosing to opt for a free degree, i.e. find themselves borrowing from high street banks. There’s will be a more pressing debt than any conventional student loan.

  • 4. Alison Parker  |  Monday, 13th July 2009 at 15:49 UTC

    I agree with your comment about parents choosing degrees for their kids. I am continually astonished when I see teenagers goiong to open days with mum and dad. Was I the only one whyo jumped on a train, checked into the lcoal youth hostel and did all this on my own? And met some itnerestign people. I appreciate I was lucky – my parents were… Read more very supportive of whatever my choice of degree and university. But if at 17 you’re unable to go to an open day on your own and choose a uni for yourself, how will you cope with living on your own? this is probably tangential to your point. But i agree that anything that will resrict people’s choice as to course and uni potential, particualry giving parents undue influence is a bad thing!

  • 5. brainduck  |  Sunday, 19th July 2009 at 19:47 UTC

    You used to be automatically ‘independent’ at 25, but they changed that in the last couple of years, ‘cos of age discrimination laws.

    Another problem with the living-at-home thing is that considerable research suggests that geographical proximity is a major factor in establishing social networks. If I’d ended up living in Bridgend & commuting to Cardiff (excellent psych dept, I actually had a confirmed place there & changed to York only after my parents moved 300 miles closer), I’d never have got involved in so much extracurricular activity – which is really important when there’s tens of thousands of psychology 2:1s out there, just getting a degree on its own isn’t enough.


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