Essay:Fees are bullshit

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I realised about halfway through that this is a little "Listen To Mitchell" in places. Indeed, read it in his voice and it seems much better. TL;DR version: 70% of graduates won't pay off their student debt, so what is the fucking point?


Student fees when I applied for University were about £1200 or so, jumping up each year in line with inflation. This was paid up front. Of course what is often forgotten is that was only if your family could afford it. The threshold for paying anything started at an income of around £30,000 and only really maxed out at the full £1200+ when the household income topped something like £75,000 - I forget the precise figures and can't be bothered to look them up right now, but there was a sliding scale and it was means tested. In fact, I know it was means tested because the application form had the infamous first question that went along the lines of "do not uncheck this box if you do not wish to apply for non-means tested loans". I often wonder how much money they saved by bamboozling people with that form at the first hurdle, but I digress. Those rough figures applied if you were an only child, as they gave a reasonable boost for each sibling or additional dependent, which is pretty fair considering this was a scheme ran by the government, who prefer to think of people has a homogeneous statistic rather than, you know, real. Now, demanding cash up-front like that seems harsh, and I know people who complained about it. Indeed, if you were lumbered with it I imagine you would be Pretty Pissed Off. But look at the figures in context: at the full fee it's not a massive percentage of the household - and considering you'd be shipping your indignant brat off to University for the best part of the year, I imagine many families could have come away in profit from it. These fee levels even at their most aren't much more than buying Little Timmy a car for his 16th birthday - and a fair price if you value a university education that much. Maybe I'm a little biased towards favouring this system because it's the one I went through and I didn't actually pay anything. Oh, that and I'm a staunch classist who wishes nothing more than to line the bourgeois pigs up against the wall... at least until I'm earning £150,000 a year and joining them. But hey, that's the game and when it comes to paying money to the government you either claim for it or you evade it.

That said, I'm still very much in the same game as everyone else in paying back the student loan, a figure now dropping through my letterbox every few months to remind me that I owe the SLC £12,000. In this case the loan was basically beer money. And maybe food, if you ever got around to it. So that was a grand per term to live on and no fees, for exactly the same qualification you get today: I shouldn't really rub it into your young and beautiful faces though, the generation before me had it all paid, more or less, and the qualification was more meaningful because not everyone in the world had a degree in Sociology. The figure you'd be owing under a £9000-per-year scheme plus the inflation based interest and we're looking at that shoot up to around £40,000 - with the maximum being closer to £70,000 according to one study so far. We'll wait and see if "maximum" turns into "average" in the next few years, as I imagine it will. It's basically now switched around from "my day": your first born and your right arm in fees, and granting you the living expenses in a means tested manner - and I'm pretty convinced this living expense is a lot less than it used to be. One day, I might just be able to clear that £12,000 debt off. Quite quickly too if I somehow manage to secure a post-doc or teaching fellow salary, don't scale my lifestyle expenses to include drinking tigers blood and stay firmly on the ramen noodles. But most likely it will be a struggle and some time in my late 40s I'll celebrate the last payment to the SLC by blowing the inequivalent of a monthly payment on Jack Daniels. If we haven't all died in an economic holocaust by then, at least.

So, if that's how I feel about a measly £12,000 of debt, what about £40,000? It's not far off four times my current figure and believe me, when you're unsure of your prospects and struggle to pay off an overdraft barely a tenth of your student debt it's a bloody daunting sum. But four times that? I'd be probably looking for a study branch and a book on how to tie effective nooses... Ha ha! Only joking. I have access to some very effective poisons and am a tremendous physical coward, hanging just isn't my style. So why the cry of bullshit over increased fees, surely it'll just take longer to pay it off? To that, there are two words: if only. The higher the debt, the longer it takes to pay off. The higher the debt, the greater the interest payments (even if it is only linked to the base rate so doesn't go up in "real" terms) and the more money you need in absolute terms just to keep treading water with the debt. So before you can even start reducing it rather than tackling your interest you have to be earning a pretty penny, something that doesn't come quickly or easily and I will go on at great length about below. How long will it take to pay the increased student debt; 10 years, 20 years, 30 years? How about until you hit the retirement age, are unable to pay it back any more and the government wipes it? In the case of many people, this will be the reality. That's a debt not best expressed by a figure but as a percentage of your income per year over your lifetime. What we call that is a tax. But there's a subtle difference between these massive, and borderline extortionate, fees and a tax. This is a tax that some people will stop paying when they've reached a certain threshold. This doesn't happen with tax, that's the point, you keep contributing.

I'm going to side track slightly to look at a bit of semi-maths - maths because there'll be numbers involved, semi because I'm not actually going to do anything with them So it was originally stated that 50% of students wouldn't be able to pay off their new fees once the cap was released - and this promptly raised to 70% when the government realised £9,000 seemed quite tasty and everyone was going to be doing it. Didn't the last increase not teach them that, given the choice, universities will just go for the maximum? Morons. So that's 70% of the future graduate population unable to pay off their debt, and indeed, this has panicked the government a little recently as they've realised they can't afford that. It doesn't really take an economics degree to figure that out and I'm rather disappointed that the people who are supposedly knowledgeable about the country's finances have just noticed themselves what utter horseshit this whole idea is - even if they were banking on "only" 50% not being able to pay it off. When people hit their threshold they stop contributing, that's it, no more. That's them finished paying. How much money do you think that top 50% (now 30%) could have contributed further if it was a graduate tax? Especially when this is the richest group that could possibly (this is conjectural and PIDOOMA, by the way) pay in *after* this threshold as much as the rest combined. It doesn't really matter specifically how much (told you it was only "semi-maths") just that it's more. This leads to two possibilities we can exploit to make the graduate tax idea better than fees: 1) We can redistribute the extra income meaning that everyone pays proportionally less of their income, i.e., a win for the graduates, 2) a greater income for the tax man, i.e., a win for the government and higher education. Or we can go for secret option number 3) a set of rates and figures in between those extremes and a win-win for both. So why is a graduate tax unethical/unfeasible/undesirable if that's what they've basically come up with, except worse? And lets not forget the sheer trauma of having to open that envelop saying how much you owe, as it slowly increases as you fail to cover the interest. That feeling would be completely lost under a graduate tax - you'd be just stuck with thinking "meh, 5% on top of the metric fuck-ton I'm already giving you, whatever" rather than "how the hell am I going to pay that off?!?".

With the semi-maths aside, there is a further question: who will stop paying this tax, or student debt as they're trying to brand it? Obviously, as debt is paid off faster if you have more money, it will be the richest ones who will be able to pay it off first. So, as most things the government seem happy with, the less well off graduates are going to be indebted for life, while those lucky few who land their city jobs will pay it off when they're 35 and snort crack out of a hookers arse with the change. Yes, this makes total sense.

But! I hear the cry. University is the great leveler in this case. Everyone who graduates will be in the same boat. It's only fair that the best jobs go to those most able - and so the most able are rewarded with the ability to clear their student debt. Again, one problem with that idea: reality. Allow me to explain after I press the return key a few times, as this point requires a new paragraph of its own:

We know what the key to a long term and successful career is; getting on a good career ladder, moving to London, hard work... basically finding the right job with good prospects for quick and limitless advancement. Think of the number of graduates that are rail-roaded into the first middle-management position they can find that has "any degree" on the job description just because they can't afford to go without a job? It's like being stuck in the back of the tour van of a band trying to make it big - you might succeed and get rich eventually, but after a few months of sleeping rough on the drummers crotch and eating raw Birdseye waffles for breakfast, lunch and dinner, that random 9-to-5 will be looking mighty tempting. Consider the expense of moving to London; transport, deposits, the extortionate rent, fees for letting agents and so on. Consider the amount of time you have to scan around looking for that perfect job. These things don't magically appear from nowhere and require effort and a lot of pain to find. Some people will have no option but to pick an apparently "temporary" job and then be stuck with it for years until they know nothing else but rudimentary admin and occasional team building sessions. Suddenly the skills learned while crafting a brilliant essay on Butler's views of gender performativity become meaningless and they wish they had just held back, not moved to the wrong place, lived on that breadline for just a little longer for the right opportunity. Who can hold out? Who can move to the right place? Who has the right contacts and in the know about where to apply? Who has the financial safety net to continue without a job until the right one comes along? Obviously the students from the poorest backgrounds will not be able to overcome these problems and are the ones least likely to progress further. University does not level these important post-graduation factors that go on to affect entire lives.

The grand vision of University suddenly being free at the point of entry and enabling all people to pull themselves up the social ladder is a nice one, but it's fundamentally flawed as an ideal and not necessarily the rule. We're about to condemn 70% of our graduate population to a financial burden that they will never escape from while the remaining ones, the lucky ones, the ones with the accident of birth that allows them to get there, can laugh down on them. As much as they want to slyly suggest the "buy now pay later" idea is a good one, I fear it will make the inequality much worse.