The tale of the 8.9%: Why I left the education system
Just under a year ago, I faced a pretty monumental decision. At the age of seventeen, I had to weigh up two contrasting options for my future. In September 2012, I could have chosen to remain within the stable borders of the conventional education system, but stack up a minimum £27,000 of debt. My alternative was to enter the world of work and search for a modest income, whilst youth unemployment soars.
Granted- not life or death- but a tough decision for anyone to make, let alone someone who was yet to purchase a pint. I was not the only one who had to make this choice.
I grew up, like many others my age, thinking of university as the natural bridge from the education system to the world of work. It wasn’t a necessity, but the sensible final rung of the ladder. I don’t know when this single thought began to spread. What I do know is that, by the time I was in school, it was comprehensively entrenched into the system.
It had turned into a competition between colleges for the highest percentage of students taken in by universities. This, in turn, transformed the way Sixth Form establishments functioned. If you ask a principal for a specific student’s name, I guarantee most would struggle. If you ask a principal for the precise number of their pupils that began university last September, I guarantee almost all could tell you on the spot.
Many commentators had condemned this culture to hell on a speedboat, but it never quite made it. Instead, it hit a brick wall shortly after I began college, on 3 November, 2010. On this day, the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, delivered a statement to the House of Commons.
He declared that, from September 2012, fee-paying university students “in exceptional circumstances” would face “an absolute limit of £9,000”. He made regular reference to Browne report of the previous month, specifically to a recommendation to remove a cap on fees completely. Reading through Mr Willetts’ statement in isolation, you could be forgiven for thinking he was introducing a policy as uncontroversial as giving free lollies to toddlers.
He wasn’t. Within a week, students would hit the streets, and government approval ratings would plummet. It was one of the first major post-election cutbacks. The individual decision was frustrating. The fact I could see, and (to a degree) sympathise with, the reasoning behind it made it even worse.
Financially, at a time when the national deficit was undeniably high, the decision was understandable. Politically, after one of the Coalition partners won their highest electoral vote share ever with a pledge to abolish student fees, the decision was exasperating. Personally, as a member of the academic year group which the decision would affect first, the decision was just confusing.
The government took a beating, and the Liberal Democrats were tortured. Labour’s Shadow Minister for Universities and Skills, Gareth Thomas, immediately responded to Mr Willetts’ parliamentary statement by describing it as “a tragedy for a whole generation”. His words seem timid when compared with those of others outside the chamber.
The Coalition’s defence was consistent throughout, and a reasonable point. Alongside the hike in fees this September will be a reformed system in which they are paid. A ‘progressive graduate contributory method’ was the catchy title given to it at the time.
If this system had been introduced by the Coalition in isolation, without the tripling of student fees, the Lib Dems would probably have been congratulated. But it wasn’t. Furthermore, it was a pretty poor counter-argument to the key point that they had majorly broken a primary election promise.
The system used by young people to pay off up to £27,000 worth of debt in the UK may well be the best in the world, but it’s still £27,000 worth of debt. Most graduates from the intake of 2012 will owe more in thousands than they have lived in years. At the age of seventeen, this single fact was enough to put me off university, at least for the time being.
As it turns out, I was not alone in choosing this option. Last week, UCAS announced that overall UK university applications for this September have seen an 8.9% year-on-year drop since 2011. In England, that drop is as high as 10%. That’s about 50,000 eighteen year-olds looking for work from September, whilst the youth unemployment rate remains at over a million.
It is undeniable that the raising of tuition fees will fundamentally alter the upper end of the education system. What the government described as an “absolute limit” of student fees in “exceptional circumstances” will be charged by 68% of universities in September. It has recently been estimated that the average university student will be paying £8,700 per annum, leading to a total cost of £26,100 over three years.
The specific financial results of this policy have no doubt already been calculated. The political implications, particularly for the Liberal Democrats, will inevitably be unforgiving and brutal. It is impossible, however, to conclude how such a wide-reaching policy will affect future British society and culture.
Come to think of it, that would make a pretty good dissertation…Tagged in: David Willetts, degree, education, Gareth Thomas, liberal democrats, tuition fees, university
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