You want a degree? It'll cost you ...

Unemployed graduates in debt - it's hardly a new story. But do we realise what desperate measures some are taking to pay back their loans?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
College is out, and graduates are out of pocket. So what's new? A record 78 per cent of this year's university leavers are in debt, on average to the tune of pounds 3,000 - 31 per cent more than last year - and are increasingly having to find ways of unburdening themselves of financial worry.

With more and more students having to depend on the student loan and statutory grant - cut by 10 per cent each year for the past three years and now at pounds 1,710 outside London - college life can be less than a ball. The annual income of students in London stands at around pounds 3,579, while their expenditure is pounds 5,150, leaving them with a shortfall of pounds 1,571 (pounds 1,248 outside London).

A reported 38 per cent have skipped lectures to mop floors, to stuff giblets into chickens or to work in shops and bars to make ends meet. For those who carry on studying, accumulated debt - on average exceeding pounds 3,000, and more than pounds 7,000 for those over 26 - is a heavy burden. Two- thirds owe money to the student loan scheme, 43 per cent to banks and building societies, 19 per cent are in debt to parents, friends or relatives, and a further 19 per cent owe money on credit cards.

Instead of forging ahead with their careers, as planned, many university leavers feel they must first pay off what they owe, quickly - and a few resort to desperate measures.

James Tucker (not his real name), 27, and Jude Ranasinghe, 24, are among those impecunious graduates who have subjected themselves to medical experiments.

When he started his film and photography BA, James had no idea of the extent to which he would be in debt by the end of it. He graduated with an ordinary degree this month, pounds 8,000 in debt - pounds 3,000 to his family, pounds 4,000 to the Student Loans Company and the rest to the bank. In addition he has two court cases pending against him for unpaid bills.

"The shit hits the fan all at once," James said. "I can't even afford to do my fourth year and get the BA Hons; the money has just been whittled away. Now I've got a degree but I'm just left having to pay off my overdraft. I want to go into advertising, but first I need to be able to buy myself a suit."

He has twice been a guinea pig in drugs tests at a private clinic, earning around pounds 1,000 a time. "I spent two weeks testing steroids, until some bloke's arm went solid so they stopped the study." What a way to make a living! But it was still a better bet, he says, than washing dishes for pounds 2.50 an hour.

Jude Ranasinghe spent two years paying off his pounds 5,000 debt. After graduating from Leicester University in 1993 with a degree in combined sciences, he admits, "I wasn't thinking 'Hey, great, I've got a degree!' All I could think of was the fact that I had thousands of pounds' worth of debt around my neck. I hadn't lived extravagantly, but my living expenses were way beyond my income. I had never really cared, because I always thought, 'I know that after I've finished I'll get a decent job and pay it all off in no time.' "

It didn't happen - or not right away. Today Jude earns pounds 14,500 a year as an accountant, but it has taken time. After college, depressed by the poor job opportunities and sinking ever deeper into debt, he, too, answered an advertisement and put himself up as a guinea pig at a private clinic. "At the time it seemed a quick and easy way to rid myself of financial worry and to be able to get on with my life. I had either to stay at the clinic one night in every six, or to stay a full week - it varied. I got pounds 75 a day for it, and as far as I'm concerned it was worth it. It hasn't affected my life or health."

Jude undertook around 12 complete tests, involving variants of drugs that were already on the market - drugs for high blood pressure and heart disease, painkillers, antibiotics ....

"They would constantly monitor your heart-beat and your blood pressure. Some of the time we had to lie around in bed and they'd stick a cannula, a tube, in your vein and tap it to open the vein when they wanted blood, once an hour for five minutes. I used to do the tests every three months, and once we were testing pain-killing morphine suppositories. They make you sick and laugh a lot at the same time, and you get on a bit of a high from them."

Money was the only motivation, but, says Jude, "It was quite fun really and you met some interesting people. To be honest, I didn't really think about it, I simply saw it as a means to get money."

Despite his nonchalant attitude to what most of us would see as an Orwellian nightmare, Jude did draw the line at having small chunks of his buttocks removed, at having his little toes cut off and sewn back on in the cause of micro-surgery, and at having his heart stopped and restarted. "I always knew that was an option. They stop your heart for a few seconds so they can practise starting it up again. You get pounds 10,000 for that."

Some graduates resort to yet more extreme remedies for the malaise of debt. "When I looked in the cupboard one day and realised I had no food," says Andy Wade (again, not his real name), 23, "I thought 'This is ridiculous', so became a rent boy."

Prostitution, says this son of a primary school head teacher, helped him through college. Without the financial backing it gave him, he believes he would not have got through his four-year degree in modern Chinese studies. "It smacks of desperation - but I was desperate."

Since graduating last month, Andy has been trying to build up his clientele in a northern university city, to help him to clear his debts of over pounds 10,000 - including pounds 3,000 in bank overdrafts and pounds 4,000 run up on a credit card - before he assumes the mantle of an insurance clerk in the next few weeks.

Andy, who began to confront his bisexuality only after he arrived at university, looked for work in bars and fast-food joints, but found that hundreds of other students were doing the same, and that the pay, in consequence, was pitiful. "You're talking about earning pounds 2.80 to pounds 3.15 an hour and having no social life."

His weight dropped from 13 to 11 stone; he was surviving on pasta and tomatoes on toast, while being treated for clinical depression. "I went into town one day to drown my sorrows, and the landlord said 'You can make pounds 20 off me now if you want.' I thought, 'I've got nothing to eat tonight except for tubes of tomato and garlic puree.' It took me two minutes to decide."

Andy began visiting clubs in the city and learned to spot gay men. "I would spin them a story about how I was in the army and had come back to visit my girlfriend, then suddenly we'd click and they'd understand, and before I knew it, I was making pounds 30 to pounds 40 - or pounds 100 to pounds 200 a week. I could have earned much more, but my studies had suffered as it was, and that was enough to keep me going."

The prostitution, Andy says, gave him a chance to take control. "I have no sense of shame about it. I'm not the victim here, I'm running the show. I always make sure the sex is safe, and never penetrative. I'm very conscious of the risk of HIV and the whole gamut of STDs."

He is keen to pay back the money he owes his family. "I've bled them dry over the past 12 months." And he is looking forward to a secure job in insurance, for a chance to get a foot on the career ladder, to get on with life, "to have a little financial pride".

"I'm just sorry for people who're going to university," Andy says, "because when you hear the bollocks Blair has been talking about scrapping the grant, things can only get worse for students, can't they?"

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