November 26, 2010

Protesting against increased university fees

Our new insect overlords

I come from a time in the distant past before university fees. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the UK’s top universities without paying any fees myself. Now, in the harsh light of the year 2010, this seems like privilege beyond imagining. I certainly didn’t feel rich, I had £3,000 a year to live on (a gift form my parents since I didn’t qualify for grants) which paid for my accommodation (Class C rooms at class AA rates), my food (Tesco value range) and my books. But I left university with a degree and with no significant debt.

Right now, the average student graduating in July 2011 will find themselves with £21,198 of debt. Students graduating in 2014 may find that figure increases to £40,000 or more. And that’s based on an undergraduate degree only – not postgraduate or research work.

The rationale is that graduates will earn more and therefore will easily be able to pay of this monstrous burden of debt. Cue hollow laughter. Have you looked at the job market recently? Courses with a vocational aspect, professional accreditation or a clear path into a profession will stand students a better chance of graduating into a good job. But for most the future is bleak, especially in the arts. Unemployment is currently standing at 7.7%. For women the statistics are even worse. The number of unemployed women is at 1.02 million, the highest figure since 1988. And please note that this comes at a time when the government is introducing drastic spending cuts in the public sector, reducing Town and District Council spending by 40%. No public sector jobs for you hopefully graduates, and no civil services ones either with cuts affecting them almost as radically.

Our insect overlords seem almost surprised at the scale and scope of the student protests, as if they thought students wouldn’t notice or care about the increased fees. This morning David Willetts (the universities minister) said cheerfully patronised students: “”My real worry is that maybe young people are put off going to university because they think that somehow we are going to be charging them fees upfront. That’s not the plan… No young people or their parents are going to have to reach into their back pocket to pay to go to university. They will only pay after they have graduated. I don’t want any young person, therefore, to be worried about going to university, and some of these protests – they mustn’t put people off.”

Thanks for that, Mr Willetts, I thought it was the crippling burden of debt putting people off going to university. But now I understand those student are just confused and it’s the protests that are worrying people unnecessarily… Come off it!

And so much for widening participation. I actually found myself saying to a colleague “But doens’t the government want people form poor backgrounds without a family history of higher education to go to university… oh wait, it’s the Tories in right now.” Aimhigher, the national programme to get more working-class teenagers into English universities, will close in July 2011. David WIllets think’s it’s no longer needed and that “the universities [should] have the freedom and flexibility to decide how to spend their resources on promoting access.” Yeah, because with dwindling resources and no central support the widening participation programme will continue as vibrant as ever.

But let’s not blame the current cabinet of millionaires though. Born with a silver spoon protruding from every orifice, Cameron and co have no idea what it’s like for ‘ordinary people’ despite throwing that phrase around like a wrecking ball during the election. This is what the Conservative party is like.

I remember growing up as one of Margaret “there’s no such thing as society” Thatcher’s children. I remember the meanness, the hypocrisy and the sheer bloody-mindedness of Tory rule. And now they’re back, like the Evil Empire in act V of Star Wars, and it’s at least partly #NickClegg’sfault. (That’s the last time I ever vote Liberal.)

We should praise and support the students for marching and for protesting an unfairness that will have the worst effect on people not old enough to have voted in the last election. And, to the students, while you’re protesting don’t forget that there will be another election (however hard the Tories try to push it back into the distant mists of the future) and when there is you can march again down to your local poll station and vote them right back out where they belong.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tardigrade, rhiannonlassiter. rhiannonlassiter said: I've blogged about university fees and the student protests here: [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Protesting against increased university fees « Rhiannon Lassiter -- — November 26, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

  2. Our insect overlords seem almost surprised at the scale and scope of the student protests

    [Citation needed]

    It would be extraordinary if they were. The idea of marching about to protest about things is hardly new. It cannot possibly be surprising that students don’t like being tens of thousands of pounds worse off (even just in a self-interested sense, setting aside the politics of the policy completely).

    Students are a soft target for the present government because so few of them vote Tory in the first place. I hope the coalition get voted out at the first opportunity, but if students play a significant part in that I’ll be very surprised.

    Comment by Dom Camus — November 26, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

  3. @Dom, it might have been the case when we were young that students automatically voted Labour. But in the run-up to the last election polls indicated that 3/10 students planned to vote Conservative compared to 2/10 planning to vote Labour. Plus many students don’t vote at all – about 40%. I maintain that a swing to the left and an increase in turnout could shock this government from their complacency and arrogance.

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — November 26, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  4. In the Government’s defence, Labour’s plans aren’t all that much better.

    The current (and future) repayment schemes are effectively a “graduate tax” already- 9% of one’s income, for the next couple of decades.

    It’s not, strictly speaking, debt. As somebody who’s going to have to pay the blasted thing, thoroughly objectionable on principle- but still not debt. Things would probably have been quite a bit worse if this were a straight Tory majority- ripping into the Lib Dems is enjoyable, but not *entirely* deserved.

    Comment by Stel — November 26, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

  5. Indeed, as I’ve commented elsewhere, apart from any discouragement of taking up undergraduate studies, a level of debt over £15-30k from fees and another however-many (certainly no less than £9k) for living and studying costs is going to put many off any further study.

    There are an awful lot of jobs graduates can end up in by their late twenties or thirties where the wages plateau just over the repayment level (so taking years to repay while your standard of living stays static), and there’s no chance of saving for a house deposit while repaying such a sizeable loan – so that’s going to shut a generation of first-time buyers out of the housing market. If I earn £100k more over my lifetime but, having no parental support, have £40k debt that it takes more than a decade to pay off, accumulating interest the while, that notional net benefit to me will have dropped a lot.

    Also, that lifetime income uplift provided by a degree is a mean average – I do wonder how much of is attributable to super-high-fliers of the Tory cabinet ilk yanking the mean upward (analogous to the JK Rowling effect on UK average writers incomes for several years in the last decade). Just because those at the top of the pyramid of earners who find it easy don’t mean that the middle percentiles can cope OK, even if the bottom is buffered. I wonder where the modal average lies.

    A friend’s vet colleague has been qualified for a couple of years but even under the current low fee regime, her monthly payments don’t cover the interest on her student loans – and she has a permanent (though junior) contract at a practice. I know another who at 35 is still only doing locum work (and is not an isolated case) – in such circumstances, where you can have to move a lot and have gaps between jobs, many with no longer than 3 month contracts, the burden of debt repayment, even in such a good job is no joke.

    Comment by Antonia — November 26, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

  6. Aside from this, the swingeing cuts in university funding levels are coming in before any increased fees or other income stream can make up for the lost teaching and research income. The government is then pointing to the hold in universities financing and saying – look! if you don’t vote for the fees the universities will be ruined! Only because of the way the coalition themselves have chosen to apply and phase in funding changes.

    I find it comforting that it is the Humanities and Social Sciences academics of the coming generations, so callously dismissed by this government’s dictates on academic value, who will be making the assessments by which history will judge this coalition and its members.

    Sadly, after a very brief glance at an Oxford-based Facebook campaign page, the only students I saw vociferously supporting the introduction of fees seem to be PPE and PPP students (the subject choice of those most likely to go into politics in future). Many of their arguments seem to hang together as badly as those I recall used in Thatcher’s Poll Tax days.

    Comment by Antonia — November 26, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  7. @Stel, I take your point about undiluted Tories. I am just so deeply disappointed in the Liberal party getting into bed with them I wonder how much the bitter pill is really being sweetened by Clegg and co. (There’s a lovely mixed metaphor.)

    Maybe how much one sees it as debt depends on personal circumstances? It also concerns me that if graduates feel that they are £40k in the hole already, they may be drawn into further debt feeling it to be a drop in the ocean. I think I might have done. Good for you though if you can avoid feeling that way about it.

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — November 26, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

  8. Nor shall I vote Liberal again! And it would have been so easy for Clegg and co to say “we’re junior partners in a coalition, we couldn’t get everything we wanted, we lost on university fees so we’ve agreed to vote against our coalition partners on this issue.” Instead of him and Vince Cable trying to convince us that students are going to be better off.

    Comment by Mary Hoffman — November 27, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

  9. I find this all too true, having come from a lower order of primate initially (single parent family origin, where my mother was ‘working class’ and couldn’t work because of family care obligations), and only being able to enter any decent level of education in the past few years.

    I have a HND, but it’s in fine art. I have almost zero actual employable skills, and zero prospects to study further as I have no income, and being a disabled woman and over the age of 35 makes sure that I’m less likely to be employed, ever.

    Line up the 25 year old males, from rich families, where have just left university with their degree and no real worries about incurred debt, then add me on the end of the line, and it’s pretty obvious who gets the job.

    I’d love to enter the education system again to study something more practical, that will allow me to actually gain employment, but well, I don’t believe in the tooth fairy any more either.

    Comment by Ruth — December 15, 2010 @ 8:10 am

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