Monday, August 28, 2006

Debt and Danger

IT'S BEEN more years than I care to remember since I left school and started my university career.

I remember my first day very well. I packed up my newly purchased kettle and hairdryer, threw them in the back of my parents' car and we set off for Jordanstown where I moved into the small, freezing cold cell that would become my home for the next nine months.
My surroundings at the Halls of Residence where far from luxurious, but I suppose I was lucky in that they were clean and cheap enough for me to be able to afford to pay for them with my meagre student grant.
Yes, I was one of the lucky ones who still got a grant. If I remember properly it wasn't an awful lot, but it covered the rent and books and left a few quid over to buy essentials like food and West Coast Coolers in the Students' Union (I was never a trendy drinker- while my cohorts sipped beer or cider I was the nerd in the corner with the fruit flavoured drink).
I got a couple of Student Loans out in my time- small amounts I used to fund end of term trips to visit my sister in London but I didn't leave university shackled with enormous debts.
I'm not showing off about that because I have no doubt that if I was just starting out I would be facing thousands of pounds in debt all in the name of gaining an education.
I read on the BBC website yesterday that students packing up and heading off to the likes Magee, Coleraine, Queens or Jordanstown can realistically expect to end up more than £22,000 in debt at the end of your average three year course. And if the people doing the sums are right, your average student may not even have had a single West Coast Cooler to show for it.
Fees for entry to most university courses are £3,000 per year, add to that the cost of living at what will still be a subsistence level and you don't need to be a mathematical genius to work out that the graduates of 2009 will be starting work knowing that a large portion of their pitiful graduate wages will be going directly back to the Student Loans Company.
I have to say that in the same position I would be questioning whether or not a university education was worth the inevitable financial burden.
Being out the other side I know how enjoyable it can be. My three years at Jordanstown where not only years in which I learned bucketloads about ethics, philosophy and- weirdly- what the lyrics to 'American Pie' really meant, but I also had a genuinely enjoyable time outside of the classroom.
Everyone should have the chance- if they want it- to sink a few drinks (cool or not) in the Students' Union. We should all have the chance to live in substandard accommodation with poor heating to 'toughen us up' and everyone should spend at least one night in said house with 20 other students drinking to the wee hours and using a space hopper up and down the street.
We should all have the right to fight with another student for the last edition of that much coveted text book in the library and we should all have the chance to sit nursing a fry in the cafeteria on the morning after the night before.

Letting loose
Having settled down all too soon into adult life I can look back on my uni years and realise they were the nearest I ever got to be being wild and letting loose. I studied hard and played harder and I can honestly look back on those years (with the exception of the freezing cold of our house which was decorated primarily in brown and my finals) with fondness. They really were among the best of my life.
A university education is about much more than book-learning and getting good grades. Of course that is a major part of it and the ultimate reason for going, but your three years should be about finding yourself, becoming an adult and- if we are being honest here- having a degree (geddit?) of fun before you settle down to the nine to five of the rest of your working life. (Even saying that depresses me).
Students should not have worry about the debts they will face or work their fingers to the bone in menial jobs to try and prevent them accumulating in the first place. Time spent mopping floors in McDonalds should be spent studying, relaxing and enjoying life.
Without starting to sound too much like a new age leftie here, an education should be a right and not a privilege and I think it is a damned disgrace that people are starting out in their working lives with a massive debt hanging over their head.
I dread to think what it might all cost by the time my wee man (just two-and-a half and so obviously a child prodigy already) reaches university age. I have friends who are already saving huge amounts to ensure they have enough in the pot to put their toddlers and babies through college.
Not everyone can afford to have that much forward planning however and I think we will have a generation of young people who miss out on education simply due to the prohibitive expense.
It's about time those in power re-examined their priorities and stopped making a good education simply available to the wealthy.

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