Paying for University – Creating a Lost Generation

I went to the University of Surrey to study Chemical Engineering from September 1999 to June 2004. The course was made up of 2 years in the classroom, 1 year in industry followed by another 2 years in the classroom to leave with a Masters’ Degree in Chemical Engineer. To ensure that you are employable as a chemical engineering graduate you need some experience, so the year in industry is invaluable. You also need to have the master’s because the bachelors’ degree is insufficient academic qualification to become a chartered engineer once the required skill and experience has been achieved.

At that time, fees of approximately £1000 were charged, but since these were means tested, my mum was expected to pay; based on her circumstances, my local authority paid half and she paid half. The student loan amount was also means tested, and I was offered about £3500 per year towards living costs, which I took, and spent on living costs. I left university with 1 year’s industrial experience and a first class Masters’, plus £18,000 debt to the SLC.

This month, I have been with my employer 10 years, starting directly from university. Since then, I have paid 9% of my post-tax salary (above a variable threshold) towards repayment of that loan. The interest rate has varied from 0% to 3.8% and immediately before leaving the UK, I was paying out over £200 a month. And I still have more than £3000 left to pay. After 10 years. It really hurt while I had 2 children under 3 in nursery!

But I’m over it, and I’m not looking for sympathy, save that for today’s graduates…

Now, I am truly appalled at the situation facing students and graduates who have come after me. It is not just that it will take them a little bit longer to pay off; the amount they will owe is RIDICULOUS! Assuming living costs at £4500 plus fees at £9000 per year adds up to £40,500 for a 3 year bachelors’, or £67,500 for my 5 year masters’. It’s no wonder that:

“four out of 10 students (43%) are not expected to have cleared their debts 30 years after graduation.” Says The Guardian here.

30 YEARS!!! In which time previous generations would have been getting settled into their career, saving up for their first home, getting married and having children. 30 years on these poor bastards will still be paying off their own loans, how will they help their children to pay for their university education, if they could even afford to have children at all (separate topic!).

Luring so many young people to be doomed to such debt is frankly criminal. Think about who they will be indebted to…? The taxpayers? and any private firms their loans are sold off to. The worst injustice of all is that so many of those who have chosen to place this burden on our future leaders of society have already had free tertiary education and can look forward to a nice public sector pension.

 We are facing down the possibility of a whole lost generation. Especially if the insane notion that everyone should go to university is maintained. Some careers require a degree, like medicine and engineering. But there are many degree’s which do not have a career at the end of them, or at least, not in same proportion as those being studied. But in current reality just having A Degree is a requirement to compete with your peers to get a job, the subject of your degree does not matter. While this might make sense for some, it certainly doesn’t make sense for all jobs:

Almost half of recent graduates are currently working in positions that do not require a degree.” (same reference)

So the bigger picture issue is how to help get young people into rewarding careers, not how many people are GOING to university. Then, how to help those who DO go to university to afford to go and not be paying 9% of their salary for the privilege for their entire working lives. The current system is totally untenable and mind-meltingly unfair.

We cannot afford to hang around another 5 years until the economy might have fixed itself. Every year that more students leave university so financially crippled will do more and more lasting damage to our society and our economy.

Smarter things I would campaign in parliament for that could help would be:

  • support for company apprenticeship schemes
  • assistance to tradesmen willing and able to take on apprentices and teach them their trade
  • make any essential student loan repayment deductions from GROSS pay not NET pay (as pension contributions are)
  • an in-depth review on the cost-effectiveness of government supported loans versus direct funding of higher education is needed (some sources suggest that it costs nearly as much for the tax payer to support students through the loans system as it would do to pay their tuition fees and a grant directly – making 30+ years of debt seem rather pointless!).

Ultimately I’d like to see tuition fees scrapped completely, a fair and sensible cap on the numbers of students doing different subjects, and to bring back grants, scholarships and apprenticeships to help our most talented young people to achieve their potential. It is in everybody’s best interests!

Young people are the future of our country and economy, they must not be crippled in this horrifically unfair way. There has to be a smarter way to pay for further education.

Students and parents can check the facts here:



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