Will I pay back my student debt? I’ll deal with it!

Jeremy Corbyn clarified on the Andrew Marr Show that he “didn’t make a commitment” during the election to write-off tuition fees, despite previously saying he would “deal” with existing student debt. To me, as a student, it is another broken promise that detracts from the debate about universities we should be having in the UK.

I would never vote for Jeremy Corbyn, and probably not the Labour party, but the fact that so many of my friends, peers and fellow students did, makes me want Corbyn to be held accountable. I admire politicians being ‘principled’, including the principle of being truthful to voters.

Perhaps this is, what Momentum terms, a ‘petty debate’ driven by Conservatives who lost in student-dominated seats, but it must be recognised that even if not the sole reason for students voting, the rhetoric surely had an effect.  The Labour Party were quick to point out the wide-ranging negative impact of Theresa May’s rhetoric on social care and fox hunting, so why not account for the positive impact of Corbyn’s insinuations on student debt?

Protest against Government plans to increase the tuition fees annual cap to £9,000 in 2010

There was a continued line throughout the election that the Labour manifesto was “fully costed”. Yet had this debt amnesty been a manifesto pledge, rather than just tacked onto the campaign message by Corbyn and numerous Labour MPs, it would have totalled more than £100bn (the cost of running the NHS for a year, or one hundred deals with the DUP!).

In seats, such as my hometown of Canterbury which turned red for the first time since its creation, the student vote mattered with around two thirds of students voting. The city’s population doubles during the academic year due to being home to two universities and a large HE college. Some Conservatives have taken the results in Canterbury, Oxford, Lincoln and Sheffield to investigate students double-voting. Instead of this disparaging outlook, the Conservative Party should be discussing why tuition fees are necessary and why the current system is correct (perhaps needing a few tweaks).

I am the first person to want to pay less in general, coming from a free-school meal household and always needing to have a part-time job since I was fourteen, but I understand why going to university should cost me money. There is a basic concept of social benefit versus private benefit, in education the social benefit of a society being educated is until around the age of seventeen. The social benefit of university is for a base number of students who require a degree for socially beneficial jobs, such as a certain number of medical students. The majority of those attending university are attending for a private benefit, to signal to the market they are able workers.

I would not argue that we need a cap on student numbers to represent these market needs; in fact introducing the higher tuition fees allowed universities to add additional places which is why we have seen a higher proportion of low income students attending university in England than Scotland. What I would argue is that we should have a system that gives value for money. Where students are not receiving that, other possible tracks should be established.

When we face an aging population and so many other global disruptors, there are not many huge policy-earners left, other than curious proposals such as 100% inheritance tax, as suggested by The Guardian’s Abi Wilkinson yesterday. Why should students receive such a huge part of the ‘pie’, when they have an entire lifetime ahead of them benefiting personally from having a degree?

I remember listening to a vox-pop news segment of young people during the election, many did not know how much they would have to repay, how much interest was charged and whether they would ever get a job earning more than £21,000. I think this points to the issue of university being seen as the necessary next step, even when it isn’t. That’s not to say people with ambition shouldn’t have the possibility of attending university, but even needing to defend that comment highlights how society is split into ‘university graduates’ and ‘not’. It is a binary system that is damaging to our job market and young people’s aspirations.

There have been in-roads with apprenticeships, but I think we could go a lot further. Programmes in Germany offer business classes alongside electrician or plumbing courses, enabling real life skills to build your own business. The opposite end of the spectrum is South Korea where university graduate rates are so high that most companies specify the top three ‘SKY’ universities and then put the graduates through another 2-3-year training programme which they can ultimately fail. 50%+ university graduate rates often means pushing back the years of productive working with higher competition and greater stress for students.

I believe I am receiving value for money, it may seem like a daunting figure if I were to pay it all at once, rather than as a ‘graduate tax’ to recognise that the Government helped me in paying for something that was beneficial to me. My three years at university in London with the highest maintenance loan and including interest, if on a job of £25,000 per year, will have a total repayment of £58,721. People are saying students are looking at this as a crippling debt before beginning their lives, I look at this as being given an opportunity to study in a world-leading university in the centre of London, despite my background.

I would not have been able to afford a bank loan for the same amount and I may not have been able to compete if places were cut when universities have to calculate places based on the government subsidy. It is worth noting that my entire debt is the same amount as one year at a US university with a similar ranking.

This highlights another need in the university market, if we are to compare with the US for example, there is a lot more space for scholarships in the UK. Not just scholarships that lead students to want to tear down statues, but ones that make your degree more practicable, linked to companies with summer placements and fast-track graduate entry.

There is so much inertia in policy and the Conservative Party is usually the first to hark back to ‘better days’. In terms of this inertia, I may seem naïve taking on this debt, when if I had been born ten years earlier it would be half the size, but the cost of delivering my degree is around what I pay and I get the benefit (with a slight amount subsidising the STEM subjects). In 1960 22,500 students went to university, in 1999 that figure was tenfold. In the past 20 years however, there has been an additional 100,000 students attending university for first time full-time degrees, with a significant boost since 2010.

Allowing the broad base of university attendees to expand alongside job-focussed programmes and scholarships is the best way to utilise pricing to create a productive and efficient choices for secondary school students. Post-Brexit there is a potential of a brain-drain, especially if Frankfurt and Paris continue to ramp up their competition for UK’s financial, scientific and innovation spaces. To avoid this we need to stop spending time arguing about scrapping tuition fees and start focussing on how we get best value for money.


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