Focus: 'I work in a bar so I can work at the Bar'

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The Independent Online
Richard Burman, aged 22, first year student at University College, London, studying for a joint BA in History of Art and Italian.

Like all London-based students, Richard Burman is eligible for a grant of pounds 2,160. "We get an extra pounds 405, which is supposed to reflect the higher cost of living in the capital. It's absolutely nothing though." So Richard has borrowed the maximum (pounds 2,085 a year) from the Student Loans Company. None of this pounds 4,245 is spent on books, let alone beers: "My flatshare costs about pounds 4,200 a year, so that's all my student money gone. I pay for travel, books, food and bills with an overdraft, and when things are desperate I resort to a credit card." Richard is spending the summer holidays temping, though he's unlikely to make it into the black. His total debt after graduation is likely to top pounds 15,000, and he's worried at the prospect of forking out for compulsory pensions or savings just as he is paying off debts. "I did my A-Levels at nightschool and presumed it would get easier once I made it to university. I love my course, and I won't give it up, but university isn't an easy option any more, unless your parents can pay."

Caroline McGurk, aged 19, first year student at Newcastle University, studying law.

Fear of starting working life in debt led Caroline McGurk to opt for living at home while studying for her first degree. She is none too pleased with the extra burdens threatened in the Dearing report."I think we pay enough already. I don't know anyone who's got that kind of money to throw around. Even though I don't get any maintenance grant I haven't taken out a student loan this year and I never will. I can't afford an overdraft, either." Once she graduates, Caroline will have to take a Bar vocational course. This will mean leaving Newcastle for London: "The course alone will cost pounds 5,000. I'll have to find rent and living expenses as well." In the meantime Caroline stays in credit by fitting in bar work. "Trips are out, socialising's out. But I don't feel deprived because I'm taking this course for a reason. I want to work in law." Caroline thinks it's right that the state should want good value for the grants and tuition expenses it pays. "I know a guy who's gone south to do film studies. He got in with one E at A-level, gets a full grant, doesn't work that hard and knows he's unlikely to get anywhere when he's finished. Someone else studying physics or engineering may work much harder but not even be eligible for a grant." As for payments that may hit her once she starts her career, she is uneasy: "I don't think you should be compelled to pay anything, but we should be responsible for providing for our old age."

Hanna Chalmers, aged 21, second year student at the London School of Economics studying for a BSc in Social Policy.

Hanna Chalmers is eligible for only half of the full grant because her mother's income exceeds the pounds 15,000 threshold set by her local education authority. "They expect my mum to make up the difference, and although she helps me when she can, she just doesn't have that much to spare. I wish students still got housing benefit." Her partial grant, along with the full student loan, is less than she needs just to pay the rent. She does shopwork and child-minding when possible and makes full use of her overdraft facility. "We can't expect the taxpayer to pay our way but we have to encourage students into higher education," she says. "A tax on graduates related to the benefits they derived at university might be a good idea. Anything but the American system, where students bear an immediate, immense financial burden. We can't go any further in that direction if we're to have a system based on merit rather than affluence." Hanna objects to proposals for compulsory private pensions. "Could you trust them to return your money intact? Why don't they just call it a tax? That's what it would be."

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