My £40k student debt – and no degree to show for it

My university is set to junk months of my work thanks to staff strikes. It’s a sham and a shame

Ollie Lewis
Sunday 28 May 2023 14:19 BST
UK strikes: Who is walking out in April and May?

It hasn’t been a good few weeks for British universities. Or for students. Or for university lecturers. In fact, the whole system is on the brink of falling apart.

Staff at universities across the country are refusing to mark students’ work as part of a years-long dispute over pay and working conditions, in the hope it will bring university leaders to the table.

Personally, that means a 10,000-word piece of research which took me six months, and of which I was pretty proud, might never be looked at nor count toward my degree. I know people revising for exams and writing essays right now, and they have no clue if they will be marked.

Oh, and this is after committing to over £37,000 in tuition fees over the course of my future career.

My international friends have paid – or will owe – nearly £80,000. That’s the situation in which one of my best friends, an American, finds herself. It’s nothing short of a scandal.

This is not normal. This is insulting.

Folk travel from all corners of the globe to attend British universities. The UK has recently been crowned the top destination in the world for those wishing to study abroad, an award that undoubtedly rests not only on strong educational standards, but a university culture in which university campuses comprise the beating hearts of entire cities and their economies.

For the first time, this reputation could be irreversibly damaged in the coming months. What is a degree if it doesn't actually account for the work you've done? For the all-nighters you've pulled and the buckets you've sweated? It's a sham — and a shame. What's more, it's a slippery slope when degrees are being handed out like confetti just for showing up – yet that's what the powers that be to whom you owe a lifetime of debt are suggesting you grin and bear.

And for those who say “it will get sorted out somehow”, you’re probably right. But we just don’t know whether all our work will count, something that should be assumed in any respectable higher education system.

Perhaps it’s future payslips that might be the most frustrating reminder of this chaos. Those £37,000 of tuition fee loans won’t pay themselves back. At the start of the month, every month, for decades to come I’m going to be paying sky-high interest on fees for the pleasure of enduring months of wasted time and effort. The joy of being a young person in Britain in 2023 summed up neatly.

Questions abound surrounding the wasted time, effort and money, not to mention the emotional and financial humiliation that the class of ‘23 has suffered. Yet they are also those that might pressure university employers and unions to talk once again, as they must if a settlement is to finally be reached and the managed decline of the British university experience halted.

University life is enjoyable for most. It certainly has been for me. While strikes and Covid-19 have been a dampener, perseverance has prevailed. But the threat currently on the table is too great to ignore. Students are finally watching closely – and universities will be judged on the next move they take.

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