An unavoidable fiscal nightmare

Top up fees are on their way, but Sara Sayeed examines whether there are any possibilities left for those who still want to rebel.

It has been ten years since Tony Blair first coined the mantra,“Education, Education, Education” and as with all things outmoded, it could probably do with a little re-working; a cover version, perhaps, to revive it in contemporary popular culture. Copyright issues aside, “Money, Money, Money” might suffice, given the current fiscal aura which ominously surrounds any mention of Higher Education. Forget bird flu, fee-anxiety is the new disease threatening to infiltrate every recess on campus and luckily for government proponents of top-up fees, it’s currently incurable. Not to say that the most pro-active of the nation’s student haven’t had a valiant stab at it – on Sunday 29th October, thousands of students headed for London to join a national demonstration in an attempt to combat the potential removal of the current £3,000 fee cap.

However, despite the successful turnout, it seems the vast majority of students are still steeped in apathy and cynicism. The University boasts a 9,000 strong student population, yet only a meagre 150 were estimated to have attended the London protest. Matt Johnson, a 2006 graduate, gloomily voices the general disillusionment with the current situation: “It can never get better though can it? It’s been going on for so long now and nothing’s really changed. It’s just gone the other way and personally I just see things getting worse”.

‘The best days of your life’? University seems to have left graduates more soured than inspired as memories of their sweetly hedonistic days dissipate into financial anxiety. A few of you may have seen that eerily relatable Capital One advert – for the unenlightened, it’s the one with the woodpecker incessantly jabbing the head of the poor guy who’s in debt, while his smugly suited and booted friend waxes lyrical about the joys of the Capital One programme. Generally I find debt adverts to be the most vacuous, mindless, irritating interruptions to my much needed T.V. time (especially the Churchill advert – the only use that giddily enthusiastic dog could possibly serve is shooting practice). Nevertheless, the woodpecker makes a good point. After university, there doesn’t seem to be much opportunity for nostalgia; financial worries over-write the drunken Toffs’ and Ziggy’s memories and you start to wonder whether that £6 pizza was really all that necessary.

Top-up fees are apparently going to make like Spiderman and save the day. With the new system, there are no upfront payments and the Student Loans Company foots the tuition fee bill until you have graduated and are comfortably earning at least £15,000 per year. 9% of your earnings over £15,000 will be siphoned off to pay back the fee-loan; this amounts to a feasible £270/year for £18K salaries. Sarah Foster, a fresher of the new top-up fee generation, surprisingly said: “Some of my friends actually really like the idea of top up fees, because it means that they can wait and pay when they actually have money, so they feel more self sufficient”.

Many are so convinced by the future success of the new system that they have dubbed the protest students as misinformed and naive. Gabriel Rozenburg, for instance, reported on the October demonstration and entitled her piece ’March of the Student Dinosaurs’. Rozenburg compares the UK’s situation with the leading universities of our ever-friendly neighbours, the United States, who charge students there at least the equivalent £10,000 per year: “It is no coincidence that all this year’s academic Nobel Prizes were won by Americans”. So it seems increased fees will make us smarter. Brilliant!

Sadly all it currently seems to be achieving is churning out a bunch of paranoid and financially fixated students. Monetary concerns have become an endemic part of University life. Apprehended by fiscal anxieties instead of their intellectual interests, students today are unavoidably tangled in a performance-obsessed, career-fixated web. Degree choice is determined by the course which will ultimately best justify the cost of education. Concerns over remuneration precede the actual investment and consequently the ghost of financial future will be a constant companion for students. Forget expanding your mind, university is now about enhancing your future career prospects. A recent Guardian article astutely summarised the issue: “If you’re paying tens of thousands of pounds for something, you’d want more than an in-depth knowledge of the poems of Emily Brontë to show for it”.

Higher Education is the new consumer market. Ever-expanding and increasingly competitive, it’s starting to seem more ruthless than Wall Street on a particularly testosterone-infused day. Universities have always vied with each other for the best minds, but recently the stakes have changed and institutions now manipulate their prospective students on a fiscal level. For example, Leeds Metropolitan University has made the financially-savvy choice of charging a considerably lower fee of £2,000 and consequently have seen an 8.3% increase in applications. This financial rivalry will only be amplified if and when the fee cap is lifted.

Unfortunately, it seems that York will be one to watch – YUSU welfare officer, Amy Foxton, believes that “York will definitely amplify their fees” once the cap has been lifted. The University’s decision to charge the maximum amount of £3,000 and the looming Heslington East prospect (it could need a little funding) is bleakly indicative of its future decisions. Not forgetting that unlike many other Universities, York has not experienced a decrease in applications, but instead boasts an overwhelming ten applications per place. Consequently, it would be economically logical for them to exploit the demand and charge more for the goods.

However, the goods don’t really seem to have that wow-factor. Last term saw an uproar over the potential closure of campus bars due to their failure to make large enough profits. This term, Derwent’s kitchens in all their Baby Belling glory are set to disappear into the ether and I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in the library without hearing frustrated whispers of “where the hell are all the books?” (just to clarify, this is not uttered by post-Ziggys still-drunks in last nights clothes, but actually the ones who look a tad more academically focused and have pencil cases).

Just to add some icing to the cake, last March the University’s academic staff initiated a strike over insufficient pay. Their ensuing boycott of assessments and examinations threatened to jeopardize the degrees of many graduating students. (An interesting note – what do seem to have enjoyed a dramatic improvement are the Vice-Chancellors’ salaries, which have increased by 25% over the last three years. The average V.C. banks a comfortable £154,000 per year and thirty-three Vice-Chancellors now earn more than the Prime Minister.) Ultimately, by the end of last term, not only were students addled with worry over their looming debts, but there was a viable chance that all their hard work and expenses wouldn’t even guarantee them a degree.

Unfortunately, regardless of NUS Extra’s current effusions, students aren’t actually that spoiled for choice in career pathways, as fresher Sarah points out: “I had friends who were angry about the fees but nobody went as far as to not apply, what are you going to do? There’s no choice”. Even if there is a choice, it’s a meagre one: “leave ‘em or join ‘em”. About 13,000 have chosen the former – there was a 3.5% decrease in applications to university this year, but as you can see, the majority have made like sheep and done the latter. But as Sarah points out, you can’t really blame them: “At the end of the day a degree is still a degree and necessary for when you need to get a job”.

Worryingly, in graduate Matt’s case, this turne out not to be the case. Matt has achieved a feat which many would only attempt with some trepidation: two degrees – an undergraduate BS in Electronics and an MA in Music technology. According to Education officials, with two degrees from a respected University, job offers should be practically suffocating him – however, Matt says he’s “pretty much on the dole”.

So far, prospects seem to be looking quite bleak. Your best bet could be to enrol on an Economics course, learn the tricks of the trade and then try and exploit the system from within – realistically speaking, that sounds a little too 007 for most and there’s probably not a martini or a fawning bikini-clad blonde at the end of the road. In a Utopian world, education would be “free-for-all” and Ben n Jerry’s would rain down from the heavens in fat-free glory. Unfortunately, even the most buoyantly optimistic would have trouble envisaging either being realised in the near future.

However, what the recent demonstration shows is that students have the ability to try and change the situations – to create the choice for themselves. Apathy and pessimism are inevitable, but hardly helpful. The ‘Education not for Sale’ anti-top up fees petition gathered 800 signatures, but the attendance for the 2.45pm handover to the Vice Chancellor was a little scanty in comparison. Universities have cast students as the new consumers, so why not demand your money’s worth? After all, if we’re going to become the ‘future creative minds of tomorrow,’ asking for just three years of enthusiastic work and a little indulgent play, minus the deranged woodpecker, is hardly overly demanding. Wouldn’t you agree?

Where to find help if you’re struggling financially

York University Student Financial Support Unit

This service offers various funds and bursaries to help out any York students who are in financial difficulty. For information or advice, email them at [email protected], call (01904) (43)4043 or visit them between 10am and 4pm in the Sally Baldwin Building, block B.

A charity designed to help students deal with financial barriers to entering and completing higher education. As well as helping students access financial advice, and featuring a student budget calculator, it provides free or supported accomodation to students at risk of dropping out of university due to money problems.

Provides information on the new student finance system and compares different credit cards, bank accounts and insurance in terms of their benefits for students.

National Debt Line
0808 808 4000
Will discuss your debt problems and ways to resolve them.

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