Education+: Personally Speaking by Felicity Robinson

Student protests? Forget it - we're too busy paying off our overdrafts
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The Independent Online
A week has passed since Sir Ron sounded the death knell for free higher education, and the media bandwagons are long gone. But one question remains: where have all the students gone?

Refugees from the radical Sixties could be forgiven for thinking that students have retreated into a never-never land of apathy, but the truth is that they've given up. Given up on the belief that they can change things, given up on an alternative to the increasingly hard financial slog of the road to graduation.

In the wake of the Dearing report and the Government's proposals, current and potential students aren't just facing up to the loss of beer money, but also the fact that higher education has moved further into the preserve of the wealthy. They aren't shouting and waving banners because they are too busy working to pay off overdrafts.

And I am one of the lucky ones. I come from a fairly middle-class background, but with three younger brothers it is still a struggle to find the cash to pay for rent, food, books and all the other essentials of student life. Yes, that includes money for beer and fags - we all need a night off once in a while - but it is by no means indicative of the halcyon days that many newspaper columnists have reminisced about in the last few days. Nineties students are now worn down with debt and will leave university with a golden handshake of about pounds 3,000 to pounds 5,000 to repay when (and if) they find a job.

I have already taken out two student loans, and I am working to pay off at least a little of my hefty overdraft, but I doubt that I will start the next term in credit.

This may sound like typical student whingeing over a pint in the pub, but it is definitely more than that. With the reduction of student grants to the extent that they barely cover hall fees, let alone daily living expenses, the prospect of a university education is becoming increasingly distant for vast swathes of the population.

Many of my friends from the comprehensive school and sixth-form college I attended, who have very good A-level grades but whose parents are on income support, contemplate the new term with a sinking feeling in the pit of their bank-balances. If they, and if I, had been faced with tuition fees or, as the Government proposes, the abolition of maintenance grants, we would have had to consider taking a working year out in order to pay - and some would not have gone on to university at all.

The imposition of tuition fees risks making the higher echelons of the education system inaccessible to lower income groups. We will create a society of wealthy lifelong learners and an underclass of talented individuals thwarted in the search for education. For parents used to paying for their children's tuition, having to continue to fund them through university will be merely an unwelcome necessity, but it will be an extremely assured person who feels confident enough about their job prospects to carry a pounds 10,000 debt into the workplace.

Of course, as Sir Ron and David Blunkett are quick to point out, graduates generally enjoy a higher salary than non-graduates and will therefore be in a better position to pay off their loans. But this ignores the many professions, such as teaching and nursing, which demand high levels of commitment for a comparatively low wage.

Will potential undergraduates who are attracted to these semi-vocational jobs be so keen to pursue them when they have to pay pounds 10,000 to qualify? If the wages were better, then maybe, but at the moment I doubt it.

If we want a learning society, a society of equality of opportunity, then we must be prepared to pay for it - and the funds for higher education must come from the taxpayer (a majority of whom, according to Dearing, will be graduates anyway). Those on lower incomes must be given the chance to go to university, but I fear that we will hear little more than a murmur from them - they will vote with their feet and walk straight out of school or college into the big wide world of lower-paid employment. And there will be no protest, for until the crisis hits the wealthier sector they will not feel the pinch. Anyway, it was always the middle classes who waved the banners - education, influence and money gives them the confidence to do so n

The writer is an English student at Nottingham University.