Tuesday, 20 May 2008

I am the Final Person in My Family Ever to Go to University

I was trying to think of a clear title, what this is about is not the unlikelihood that I would have ever gone to university but the fact that no-one after me will ever get the chance to do so. These thoughts came about from two sources. First I was sitting in a waiting room yesterday waiting for the people I was supposed to be working with and picked up a leaflet for a university close to where I was sitting. It was aimed at parents of students rather than students themselves and clearly aimed to reassure parents about what they were going to be sending their children into. This in itself, I feel highlights how concerned parents are about letting their children out of their sight even when they reach the age of 18. The second thing relates back to my post yesterday that I had found due to the stupid residence laws that some time last August I acquired a common-law wife and common-law stepson of my housekeeper and her son, without me having done anything. This boy is 6 years old, and he says he wants to be a scientist, but reading this leaflet yesterday it was clear he stands no chance of that even now.

Now let us track back a bit. When Tony Blair came to power in 1997 he said his slogan was 'education, education, education' and in contrast to the proceeding Conservative governments rather than trying to make the UK into a low-wage manufacturing base, like the 'Taiwan of Europe' to paraphrase a Conservative MP of the time, rather a better educated, skilled country like our European neighbours. The aim was for 50% of 18-year olds and many others to go to University. Well it started reasonably well. The University sector had been rationalised since my days there in the 1980s when there had been universities and polytechnics, the latter giving more technically-focused degrees and of course with typical British snobbery they had been looked down upon as second class. From 1992 they were allowed to become universities and some have been very successful. Anyway, the idea was to get more people to university especially from socio-economic and ethnic groups that were under-represented in universities. When I went to University in 1987 6% of the UK population turning 18 that year went, now it is 40% but the level of working class people attending levelled off in 2002 so further increases have just been mopping up more of the middle classes. In 1987 you could get a very good job with 2 'A' levels, now with 'qualification inflation' you need at least a BA/BSc or even an MA/MSc. I found when I graduated that having a degree actually made me unemployable in many jobs and it was not until 2000, 13 years after I had graduated that I broke through the £10,000 (€12,600; US$19,200) per year salary level and then that was because I had 4 part-time jobs. Anyway, things have changed a lot since then. Most universities have four times the number of students they had in the late 1980s, in many cases crammed into the same number of buildings as they had back then and class sizes are far bigger. In my day you had 10-14 people in a seminar now apparently it is something like 40-50 people, so the quality of teaching or at least the amount of attention each student gets from a tutor must have fallen or substituted by online stuff. Of course the increase in student numbers have not been made up just by more UK students. All universities have increased the students they take from abroad, who pay three times the fees UK students pay. They are wonderful moneyspinners for the universities and it is unsurprising they bring in more and more. Apparently China is the golden goose for such students at the moment, but is likely to fade and be replaced by India in the next decade.

Now one thing I have always admired about the USA (and there are very few things) is that they have always valued education and seen it as a way for people to improve themselves. Given how beholden the UK has been to the USA (note current plans for an Armed Forces Day just like the USA) especially Tony Blair, it is unsurprising that the UK moved in that direction and it seems to have worked, though to a lesser extent than had been hoped for, at least more people can go to university than when I did. However, reading this leaflet yesterday it seems that period, of, say, a decade is at an end or perhaps it was shorter lived than that, beginning to come to an end in 2002. Now, it is not that universities have made it harder to get in, it comes down to money and this brings me back to the leaflet.

The leaflet outlined what students have to pay in fees. Fees were introduced for English students in 2006. Scotland and Wales decided that local students going to universities in those countries would not have to pay fees. However a Scot or Welsh person coming to an English university has to pay as does an English person going to Scotland and Wales. Students from abroad have always had to pay. Though non-repayable grants had been phased out in the 1980s and replaced by loans from 1991 onwards, up until 2006 UK students did not have to pay fees to study at university (except at the private University of Buckingham). Now, they have to pay £3,070 (€3868; US$5894) per year. Students from those odd bits of the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, all of which have their own governments have to pay £4,817-£19,267 as if they were foreign students. So, the cost of a 3-year course is now £9,210 (€11,604; US$17,683). Students can take out a loan to pay this and then begin paying it back once they earn more than £15,000 (€18,900; US$28,800) per year, which of course may not be the case for many of them given the average salary in the UK is £24,000 per year and in some regions like East Anglia only £19,000 per year, and 80% of the population earns this or less (which if 40% of 18-year olds are going to university, quite a few must fall into this category).

Of course the £9,210 only covers the fees. The fact that struck me in the leaflet was the living expenses. Now I know the university in question in in the expensive South-East of England, but they reckoned living expenses cost £5,500 for the first year and that is when the students are living in student halls with meals thrown in, let alone when they have to move out into rented accommodation (and all the scams landlords try with taking deposits, etc.). So let us say £5,500 for first year + £7,500 for second year + £7,500 for third year = £20,500 for living. Now, I know students work a lot more these days (when I was at university you were restricted to 6 hours per week, I have heard that limit has been raised to 20 hours per week), but let us say they do 20 hours per week at minimum wage (the kind of service sector jobs they can get in call centres, bars and shops) which is set to rise to £5.73 per hour (€7.22; US$11 - the minimum wage in USA rises to US$6.55 per hour this July; the price of fuel, food and clothing in the USA is far cheaper though, in 2007 the average price of petrol rose to US$3 per gallon [US$0.66 per litre] = £0.34 per litre, whilst by the in the UK you were paying £1 per litre), so paying £114 per week before tax and £5959 per year, before tax. Of course they can probably go up to 40 hours per week over the vacations and may be able to get pay above minimum wage, but this would probably at most add £600-£1000 to the income over the year, and all of this is before tax. With the loss of the 10p tax band it is those people earning around the £4000-£7000 per year mark and unable to claim tax credits (as most young students cannot because they do not have children) who are deemed to be worse off.

There are loans upons loan available and student can apply for a loan of £1,230-£4,510 for the total three years of their study to pay all these living expenses, but as even the university shows that that is not enough to live a boring life for one year at university let alone that this is yet more debt.

So, if students are lucky they can work enough to cover their living expenses, but never go on holiday or buy a laptop or a car or even drink beer as the leaflet's costs left nothing for socialising. Of course if they live like that they will probably do well on their course (though having a laptop seems compulsory for study these days). My bosses' son who went to university in the North-West of England so a cheap area, came away with debts of £10,000, which apparently is seen as two-thirds of what he should have expected. I do not know if that includes the fees debt as well, but I expect not. Once over £15,000 they have to pay back 9% of their income per year, so £1,350 per year on £15,000, meaning 7 years to clear that debt, let alone whatever they owe to the bank.

This is fine for well off families like that of my boss, but coming back to the 6-year old who wants to be a scientist (and science courses can be more expensive, costing a third as much again as a humanities course), where is his mother on £10,000 per year plus tax credits going to find the money? In fact he is better off than if he was my son, because bursaries kick in for families earning less than £38,000 per year, but even this pays only £2,765. So local authorities give loans for families earning less than £30,000 per year and universities are supposed to pay bursaries of £1000 for those on less than £21,000, but how long is this going to last when you have to find housing deposits of £2000?

So, someone from a working class or even a middle class background is going to find themselves with potentially £19,720 of debt when they leave university, and that does not include overdrafts and credit cards and all other kinds of debt that they are facing. Now, they will then be under pressure to get a mortgage and to pay living expenses, all these high rents and utility bills. I earn £34,000 per year and I am having trouble paying this. How can a recent graduate with this much debt even earning the top of the average salary of £24,000 immediately after graduating, afford to pay back all of this money. What do they get in return? They have spent this money for something that now 4 out of 10, 21-year olds will have. It hardly marks them out in the labour market.

The other thing is that loans are fine, paid work is fine, but so much money is needed upfront and even my whole household would lack the money if the 6-year old was now 18, we could not afford to pay his deposits or help him feed himself through the weeks while he sought work. He could not even give up his job when the exams came up for fear of being evicted. So, it might be about education for all, but it soon becomes clear than unless your parents are earning double the national average salary each year, going to university is nearly impossible and even if you risk it, you could be burdening yourself with debt well into your 30s. No wonder so many people are going bankrupt and those turning up for university study is falling.

Of course my brother has no children and lives in Belgium anyway where things are very different. I have lost contact with my three cousins, but they all have 2-3 children each and it is unlikely given that they are predominantly farmers and gamekeepers than any of their children will ever be able to afford to attend university. Even my pseudo-son, it is clear, 12 years before he could even go, will never be able to fulfil his dream of being a scientist and probably will not even be able to afford a course to become a plumber or an electrician. The rhetoric has been about widening access, but when you begin to dig, you find in fact it is just about the same control of society as always. The rich can still study, the poor are increasingly kept out, not by visible barriers but by less visible economic ones. Of course that is just the way the super-rich of the UK want it. They do not want an educated population that may question their grip on power. They want people to be excluded from education so they can remain the cheap, flexible labour force dreamt of by the Thatcherites in the 1980s. Even those they let into universities will be so shackled by debt that they have to buckle down and accept the work they can get rather than trying to shake up the system. Unsurprising for Blair, under his populist rhetoric he has actually engineered another tool of societal control, an additional element in his desire for an authoritarian UK. No wonder people from the North of England are buying houses in Scotland. What we have seen with higher education is an expansion but so that more wealthy middle class people can go and Britain can draw the most intelligent and rich from across the world to come to the UK, rather than what Blair seemed to promise in 1997 which was an education system which provided a decent chance for anyone with the intelligence. In the 1970s with grants and no fees, there was actually a better chance for people from poorer backgrounds and certainly average middle class ones than there is now, even with limited numbers of places. Nowadays intelligence does not come into it, it is all about money.

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