Unlike our Prime Minister and his colleagues who enjoyed a free university education, tuition fees and the dread of student debt are central features of my generation’s experience of the education system.
First introduced in 1998 and set at £1,175, before creeping up to £3,000 by 2006, I was old enough to remember the Tory-Lib Dem coalition decision to treble the fees to £9,000 a decade ago. Nick Clegg’s decision to abandon his manifesto promise not only weakened the bonds of trust between young people and those in authority; it meant that my contemporaries were loaded with roughly £20,000 of extra debt.
Now, top-up fees mean that most universities charge students £9,250 a year (or £27,750 for a three-year course). But ahead of the government’s Higher Education White Paper, reports suggest that high-level discussions have taken place on reducing these fees by £750 each year.
A minor reduction like that is a false reprieve for students, who have been exploited and ignored by this government and those before them.
As things stand, the vast majority of us will never fully pay off our student debt thanks to the above-inflation interest rates we’re paying on our loans. Reducing fees would reduce the average student debt by around £2,000, leaving the normal graduate with around £25,000 to pay off over their working life.
And this doesn’t include figures on maintenance loans, which over three years add over £10,000 to an average student’s debt. It’s not close to the generous settlement our decision-makers experienced—this is still an enormous amount. If you combine it with a reduction in the repayment threshold, which the Treasury is reportedly considering, students will end up paying thousands of pounds extra back over their lifetimes.
The burden of exorbitant fees also place a huge burden on students’ mental health. Issues related to debt and financial insecurity have worsened since the onset of Covid-19, with an NUS Covid survey exposing that more than two in three students (70%) are concerned about their ability to manage financially—but the seeds of the crisis were sewn many years ago.
We know that being chained to a growing debt for what feels like an almost never-ending repayment period causes emotional and psychological disturbances. Not allowing students a fairer settlement is not only cruel, it’s also economically illiterate—it’s the equivalent of pushing the issue into the long grass, as this will only rear its head further down the line when higher levels of mental health spending are needed to address the symptoms of inaction.
Rather than tinkering with our broken system in an attempt to secure a few positive headlines, the government should listen to the student movement, abolish tuition fees, and write off student debt. They should finally take the prospect of ‘levelling up’ seriously, and begin investing in the communities that are so under-represented in our higher education so that we can harness the untapped potential that exists across society and all benefit from it. Alongside scrapping the current fees-based system, this could also be done by improving the digital infrastructure available to disadvantaged learners, and by providing adequate assistive technology to meet requirements of disabled students.
With outstanding student loans reaching £141 billion last year, the government needs to address the root cause of this problem once and for all. They’ve already ghosted us in the Budget, and earlier this month Rishi Sunak failed to address my letter, but with a once-in-a-generation White Paper around the corner it isn’t too late to stop ignoring the student movement.
We’ve actually got experience of living with the consequences of their decisions on higher education. Let’s use this as a watershed moment to replace a failing model which is built entirely on debt, and imagine a post-market system where knowledge isn’t commodified, but rather valued as a public good.