Will my clever children reject university?

With a family full of educated professionals, expected all my children to go to university. But can they afford it?
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The Independent Online

Debt used to be a four-letter word. Now, it's a lifestyle - even at university . As Seventies students, we enjoyed grants, and our fees were paid. Graduating from Bristol, Imperial, and Keele, we were debt-free.

Debt used to be a four-letter word. Now, it's a lifestyle - even at university . As Seventies students, we enjoyed grants, and our fees were paid. Graduating from Bristol, Imperial, and Keele, we were debt-free.

Employers seemed eager to snap us up in those halcyon days of job security. At university, we could concentrate on our studies. Essays and lab work didn't have to compete with part-time jobs. Our first and only loan was the mortgage.

We married, planned a family, and a bright future for our children, all, surely, destined for university. Our two eldest have already followed the university route but with the threat of debt hanging over them will our two talented youngest?

We weren't first-generation graduates. Great Aunt Bel was a research fellow at Girton, before the First World War, a mathematician, and later, a renowned headmistress. My mother was a headmistress, my mother-in-law a maths teacher. In both families, higher education has been prized since Victorian times. The family tree is full of teachers, health professionals, clergy, (including an Irish archbishop), and centuries of Lakeland hill farmers. Heritage and culture in abundance, but sadly, never much money.

When our eldest was born, I tried to work full-time, but his health problems forced me to settle for freelance and part-time work. Three healthy daughters followed, and we determined to give them all the best childhood we could afford.

In 1985, we achieved our dream, buying a 17th-century farmhouse, in the Lakeland valley. The two younger children were born here, and the elder two enjoyed the wild freedom of the fells. My earnings were haphazard, some A-level teaching, the modest advance for my first novel, but Robert was doing well writing software. Bringing up four children, money's bound to be tight, but we could pay the bills, stay in credit. Born in Manchester, I'd longed for a country childhood. We couldn't afford Disneyland, but the children played in scenery scripted by Wordsworth, did their homework by the inglenook fireside.

At this stage, we weren't consciously saving for their education. Private school fees were beyond our means, and students had grants. Even means-tested, they'd get something. For the older two, all we had were endowment policies, to mature as golden handshakes, when they graduated. Nothing unusual in that, or especially generous. Most parents want to give their children a helping hand, and we could afford it.

Appearances can be very misleading. The house, for instance, looks impressive, 17th century marked by name on the Ordnance map. As the children said, just like Chatsworth. Dressed in Next, Osh-Kosh, Gap, and Benetton, they looked like the children of our richer friends. I like all the usual labels too, but our clothes come from Oxfam, always have, even when we had just two children. Four, on an ordinary income is a huge commitment, as we were beginning to realise. University education was expanding, massively, but grants were to be phased out. Someone would have to pay. Our children, we agreed, were our responsibility. We didn't graduate with a millstone round our necks, and nor should they.

Cut your coat according to your cloth. Above all, they mustn't ever look poor. Poverty is almost a crime. Their friends went on foreign holidays. So did we, all over Europe, back-packing round the Arctic Circle, exploring Pompeii, scrambling in the ruins of the Berlin Wall, and joyous Prague, before McDonalds arrived. We travelled by train, on cheap tickets, slept on the trains by night, in seats, never even in couchettes. We carried a camping stove, cooked by the wayside, toured Rome one day, then woke in Venice. Rejecting a costly school trip, six of us camped in France for less.

They've seen the Doge's Palace, Mount Etna erupting, Michelangelo's Pietà, Anne Frank's house, and the Little Mermaid. In this country, they've camped from Penzance to Lerwick, living on beans, potatoes, bread and cheese, seeing every corner of Britain.

Once we realised that we'd be supporting them all at university, and finding fees for the younger two, we drew our belts even tighter. No more racketing around Europe, even sleeping on trains, only UK camping from now on. We've halved our food bill, now under £10 per head, buying most groceries at Aldi, the German budget chain, and only loss leaders at other stores. Potatoes by the sack, and fruit by the crate are cheaper from the market. We keep hens and free-range meat is an occasional treat.

Some economies aren't worth making. Without the internet and e-mail, the children would be truly deprived. Books are double stacked, on every shelf, but years ago, the children discovered the classics, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dickens and Trollope, for a pound each, cheaper by far than Harry Potter. They spend hours in Kendal's superb library, order the books they can't afford to buy. We don't buy new CD roms, but computer magazines, offering, say, last year's Encarta.

Most of our furniture is truly ancient, family pieces, and a George I chest of drawers I bought as a student. Underneath fresh chintz covers, neatly piped, hide Victorian chairs, and an ancient sofa. We haggled with a mill, for seconds, followed instructions in a 1911 Household Encyclopaedia, sewed the covers on a 1909 Singer hand machine. Cutting the patterns called for serious arithmetic, geometry, and patience.

The children know the money is for their future. They want to be the best. Our son graduated from Durham, our oldest daughter is at Birmingham. Ambitious and hard working, they know we've worked to provide for them and are relieved to be free of debt. So far, neither of them has squandered our hard-earned money. They're worth it, and so are the younger two. The 13-year-old is top of her year, at the excellent Lakes School and hopes to reach Durham or York. The 10-year-old, in Year 6, excels in every subject. They know that we save and invest all the time for their future. They've seen the account books, the TESSAs and ISAs, the share certificates, the Children's Bonds. They know, too, all about loans, and student debts. Student friends owe thousands already, and the banks seem eager to sign them up for further loans.

We've never joined the credit culture. When we bought this house, the kitchen was a ramshackle old scullery. For seven years, we lived with it, till we'd saved enough to pay cash. We pay off our cards, in full, every single month. The older generation, farming stock, were appalled when we took out a mortgage. Twenty-five years later, we feel the same about student loans, young men and women, graduating on the never-never!

Our children, our responsibility and, at today's prices, that's £15,000 per child. If, as is rumoured, fees for top universities soar to £5,000 a year, that could double. Maybe it's time for a radical re-think?

In the past year, house prices have risen by 15 per cent. Thirty thousand pounds would make a very useful down payment. Unless something goes very badly wrong, our daughters are on course for top grades, at GCSE and A-level. Faced with a possible £30,000 bill, will they go to university at all? For generations, our families have been graduates and teachers. Maybe our younger daughters will be the first to say "no thanks"?

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