Friday, 12 November 2010

Is it really 'fair', Nick?

Students from across the country poured onto the streets of London to protest against the rise in tuition fees. Aaron Porter, NUS President, declared that students are now "in the fight of our lives".
But what's all the fuss about? The government last week decided to lift the cap on tuition fees to £9000 and the vote is going to be taking place shortly. At election time, Liberal Democrat MPs promised that they would not raise tuition fees and, in fact, for many years had been calling for no tuition fees whatsoever. My, how the tables have turned.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg stepped in to PMQs and faced a stern interrogation from Harriet Harman. He was accused of being "led astray by the Tories" . All the while, students outside were carrying placards stating that the Liberal Democrats had let them down.
The National Union of Students have also declared that they will attempt to force by-elections - under the Coalition's own ruling - in constituencies where Liberal Democrats break their promise of not voting for higher fees. However, in addition to the protests, this could force many Lib Dem MPs into rethinking their position.
During the day, Facebook was rife with students talking about the protests and the hike in fees. But opinions were not always aligned: although not in favour of the fees, students and graduates alike appeared unfazed. Some said that the monetary benefit of going to university was more than worth it. Others agreed, stating that grants for poorer students would be increased and that the loan would not have to be paid back until you are earning over £21,000; students would not be in 'real debt'.
The fact that such opinions existed shocked me. As a student at the University of Warwick, I am currently receiving over £7000 in loans. Over the course of three years, that would be £21000 but I'm doing a four year degree, which many seem to have forgotten exist. Since the university covers half of my fees in my year abroad, I would end up receiving a loan of, give or take, £3000. I would thus be left with £24,000 of debt, something I'm brutally scared of.
Taking a quick glance at the proposed increase, tuition fees alone come to £27,000 (for a three year course) and if you're living away from home, you would receive a maintenance loan of about £10,000 - a total of £37,000. I can honestly say that had this figure been in front of me when joining university, I would have had to sit down for quite some time. In the end, I would still have come to university - but begrudgingly. Rather than having a debt that was a little too much to deal with, an extra £16,000 would have felt a great deal heavier.
Such high level of debt would drive out those simply going to university for the experience, but what of the less affluent? Lower-income families struggle to send their families to university and while grants from both the state and university are available, they only cover the bare necessities. Under the new proposals grants will be increased, albeit barely, and the poor will pay. The number of those from ethnic-minorities going to university will go down and there is a real potential for a generation who can only dream of entering higher education.
So how about the rest of us? Studying French with International Studies, I currently receive 8 hours of 'face-time' per week, which inevitably leads to my father and house-mates, complaining (although for entirely different reasons). Under the proposals, I would be paying £50 per seminar/lecture and I haven't included the price of books. I could go on…
While it is clear that the government is in massive amounts of debt and that something needs to be done, is it truly fair (Nick Clegg's favourite word, apparently) to shift the cost of university from the state to students?

Written for The Student Journals