Orla Traynor, Opinions Editor.
This month sees the graduation of thousands of students across the UK. After years of hard work, it will be a happy and proud occasion when they go on stage to collect their diplomas. Yet, thanks to a new study published by a major economic thinktank this week, a daunting figure looms in the background of what should be an exciting time.
Findings from the Institute of Fiscal Studies reveal that students from the poorest 40% of families in England will accrue a debt of £57,000 on average. This is a staggering debt for a person of any age, let alone someone who is just embarking on their career. While the outlook is somewhat better for those of us from Northern Ireland attending Queen’s, our fellow students from the rest of the UK are not getting a fair deal.
Competition for university places has been growing more and more fierce as time goes on, since the 2010 decision by MPs to increase tuition fees to £9,250 per year – one that prompted student protests across the UK. A vast number of Northern Irish students have been forced to study outside of NI, either due to their A-Level grades or course availability, costing them three times as much as students at home.
What we must all realise is that tuition fees today are not what they were originally introduced as in 1998. This week, Andrew Adonis, a key architect of policy under Tony Blair’s government, referred to the current tuition fee system as a “Frankenstein’s monster” which has gotten out of hand under the Tory government and also voted to scrap the maintenance grant for the poorest students in England.
The original tuition fee system set a cap on university fees per year at £3,000. Adonis writes in The Guardian that the intention was that universities would set the fee between £1,000 and £3,000 per year, yet virtually they all chose the upper limit of that figure, seemingly arbitrarily. The proposed plan also included no interest rates, which has since been overturned.
The most shocking aspect of the IFS study was the conclusion that, 77% of students will not pay off their loan by the time it is written off by the government – 30 years after graduation. This begs the question, why charge students in the first place?
In defence of the current system, Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, rejects the idea of abolishing tuition fees altogether. On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, he stated “if you don’t benefit from a university education, you shouldn’t have to pay additionally to support those who do.” What Mr. Gove fails to realise is that everyone who has ever been treated by a doctor or attended primary or secondary-level education – that is, virtually the entire population – has indirectly benefitted from a university education.
It is the responsibility of a government to give its citizens the best possible chances in life. For as long as third-level education continues to charge exorbitant fees, the UK government is failing its young people.