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Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Paying for University

A few lucky people have enough 'family money' behind them to be able to pay their university fees and their living costs while at university. For the rest of the university population - the vast majority - the option is to borrow the money to pay the fees; and additionally to borrow most of the money with which the student's living costs are met. Some families are able to subsidise the student to some degree, mitigating the total that is borrowed by a percentage but leaving most of the cost of the higher education experience to be paid for from earnings when the salary earned by the graduate exceeds £21,000 a year. Until that salary point is reached, no repayment is demanded but the debt accrues [from the student's first day in higher education] at 6% interest.

Under this regime, there has been a vast expansion in the student population, which conveniently keeps that number of individuals off the jobs market and therefore makes them ineligible for inclusion in the statistics of the unemployed.

The extent to which students are 'employed' is a matter of some contention. Many students in subjects other than engineering and 'hard science' [which require significant time to be spent in workshops and laboratories, where proper standards for health and safety must rigorously be maintained] have 'contact' with a teacher for only a few hours a week. The contact may include a lecture to a few hundred individuals gathered together [or, at the extreme, a requirement to watch a video that is to be seen by hundreds of thousands of students in many institutions]; or it may be a one-to-one tutorial; or many variants between the two. For a typical History student the 'load' might be three mass lectures, two or three small-group lectures and two smaller-group tutorials [3 to 5] students: making the contact hours 8 a week. Some of the teaching may be done by internationally respected academics - in person - but some may be done by postgraduate students, research fellows or junior lecturers 'borrowed' from another institution. I do not know the current situation, but I do know that a decade ago some individuals were giving the same short courses in four or more universities in major cities [especially London] due to a shortage of people holding certain skills in areas like business studies.

Despite the patchy nature of teaching in different parts of different institutions, most are fully subscribed. Most non-laboratory students have a maximum load of a dozen contact hours a week, for between twenty and thirty weeks a year, with the requirement to write essays for tutorials a few times each term. The phrase continues to be used, "what are you reading?" to denote "what subject are you studying?" but very few students use the vast resources of an historic library as students did until about the millennium. Most of the newer universities do not have large libraries, and many older universities have redesignated their libraries as 'resource centres' or equivalent terms, and have reduced book purchases dramatically. Many institutions have 'slimmed down' their libraries; and the massive Stacks, often below ground, that used to be open for research by students have been downgraded or even closed down. Students now do most of their 'reading' on-line, in a highly selective manner as is common in this era of downloadable gobbits. Essays and dissertations are on offer on-line at very modest prices, because in most subjects there are topics that must be included and only a modest range of questions need be dreamed up by tutors to show that students have mastered the essentials. For several years. sophisticated programmes have been available to universities to check [as far as possible] that students are answering those questions in their own words: hence, many students acquire skills in paraphrasing standard answers to satisfy the requirements.

For the rest of their time, students can pursue the activities that appeal to them: including sport, sex, and earning some money by part-time work to buy booze and drugs. Some students from caring, modest homes assiduously do their work, and use their earnings from part-time work to mitigate the amount that they need to borrow for their maintenance costs; but they are conspicuously a minority. An increasing proportion, almost certainly the majority, leave universities with degrees in subjects that are not directly useful in the jobs market. It is now common for graduates to be forced to recognise that they are stuck with a 'worthless' degree, and they have to take jobs alongside people who left school at sixteen. Such people are at least freed from the burden of graduate debt: the notional interest that they owe continues to accrue but as they will never earn the threshold salary of £21,000 [or the equivalent, once inflation is back in the picture] they will never be required to repay. It is generally accepted that at least 60% of the total of outstanding student debt will never be repaid, so it will fall to the state to write it off.

I am moved to write this piece because I heard a BBC correspondent say on the early News this morning that female graduates a few years after graduation 'earn' three times as much as non-graduates: this is rubbish. Some graduates, such as those who go into City law firms or the research departments of City finance houses, can indeed earn three times the average graduate salary after three years; but these are an exiguous minority. For the vast majority of graduates, no such recompense is on offer. Scientists and Engineers are special cases, which must be addressed on another occasion. People with unusual talents in such fields as music and literature would mostly be able to make their good livings without degrees, and they too must be lifted out of the general group. Most graduates now face an unsustainable situation of debt; combined with a humdrum job and a place at the back of the queue for housing.

This situation, like so many others in the United Kingdom, is unsustainable.

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