A couple of weeks ago some of my friends were comparing the amount of student debt they have. One guy who graduated in 2004 has £12k, two others who graduated in 2008 have £15k+. Then I started ruefully boasting about my staggering £28k+ in student loans and everyone went a bit quiet. My ability to kill a conversation aside, this was slightly shocking because I graduated one year after the £15k-ers, in 2009. How on earth, their enormous eyes asked me, had I managed to get into that much debt?
The short answer is top-up fees. Rather than go through clearing in 2005 I took an admin job, reapplied to university and started my BA in 2006. I was a member of the first generation to go to university with top-up fees, which at the time didn’t seem that bad: £6k a year would only add up to £18k overall and I’d probably pay it off within 5 years of graduating. 10 years later and the interest on my loans has increased the original amount by £10k. Meanwhile, I have spent a grand total of around 5 hours making use of my hard-earned BA.
Which is why the news that most students are failing to make use of their degrees and are being pushed into low-skilled jobs comes as no surprise. Research from the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), has found that 58.8 per cent of UK graduates have ended up in non-graduate jobs and estimates that 45% of graduates will not earn enough to pay off their loans. All of this was predicted, of course, by experts back in 2004 when the Labour government first announced their plans to introduce top-up fees.
The reason that myself and so many other students willingly signed up for top-up fees, despite the doomsayers and debt, was that although higher education finance had changed, the thinking behind it hadn’t. Back in 2006 people were still talking about higher education like it was an investment. A degree would pay for itself! It would give students the opportunities and skills to earn a higher salary doing something exciting and interesting! Student debt was seen as “good debt”; like a mortgage or the debt of gratitude you owe a faithful dog who has just dragged you clear of an avalanche.
This idea of “good debt” persisted - from the lecturers who, when quizzed on the courses employment rates, explained that they weren’t “overly concerned with those things”, to the managers who believed that unpaid internships and dead-end admin jobs are a rite of passage. I’m not attempting to blame anyone else for my student debt: it’s my name on those bills. I do believe, however, that it is important to ask why I let myself get into that much debt, and why students continue to sign up for useless university courses. When the government brought in top-up fees they introduced a financial model for higher education which had not been seen in the UK before. Rather than adapt our thinking to this new model, most of us are still stuck in the past.
We still believe that a degree for the sake of a degree is enough of a reason to saddle young people with thousands of pounds worth of unshiftable debt. My contemporaries are still expected to squat in entry-level jobs for at least a decade before graduating to the kind of roles that, in theory, they were qualified to fulfil on the day they graduated. And those are the lucky ones. Personally, I am now able to see the funny side of having got into this much debt in pursuit of a degree in Cinema & Television - but that £18k student loan is still one of my biggest regrets.