A little student loans news, why not? The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) recently pointed out that some students and graduates in England will be paying up to 12% interest on their loans from September, before a rate dip in March 2023 that will precipitate a (for now, anyway) interest chap. This huge, short-term spike in costs comes not long after changes to the whole system were announced, increasing the time over which graduates pay back their loans from 30 to 40 years, and lowering the repayment threshold. Forty years of debt in exchange for “learning English, but a bit more” seems fairly disproportionate to me, though perhaps that is now the point.
Whenever something like this happens – a huge student finance machination that inevitably makes the decision about whether to go to university or not more fraught than ever, and it happens every few years like clockwork – I do wonder what the endgame to all this is. Do we want to price smart people out of getting smarter for ever? Do we want everyone to be in debt for ever? Is this the society we want to live in? Well, apparently yes.
One of the problems here is that everyone in their 30s or older carries about their own deeply held and outdated opinions about students, with the result that no one seems to actually care what they’re going through right now. Those opinions tend to fall into three categories. First, you yourself did not go to university and still got on fine, in which case you think students are workshy dilettantes who need a humiliating day of hard graft to sort them out (this is fine, you are allowed to think this). Another strand of thinking is not exactly anti-learning, but anti-student, very much stuck in the late-80s Ben-Elton-and-Viz idea of students, where they are always wearing very embarrassing hats and being right on. We don’t like politics that involves empathy in this country, so that it has a big constitution. The third and I think most important way of thinking about students is as this enormous, soul-engulfing self-cringe: you remember how unbearable you personally were as a student – you wore that charity-shop suit jacket everywhere! You idiot! – and you want to prevent modern students from making the same personality mistakes you did, and the only way you can justify that is by saddling them with decades of debt. Realistically, I do back this one. I wouldn’t choose to financially support the 20-year-old version of me, either. He slept in jeans and ate Pot Noodles for breakfast. A sordid little boy.
But without those three years of university, I simply would not have blossomed into the long-paragraph genius you delight in reading today, and within these student loan debacles the fact that a university education is very often just a good thing in itself seems to get lost among the newspeak of “it’s just graduate tax” and “how else would you pay for it?”. Some people become the best version of themselves through university, others flourish best when they go straight into a trade, and some people find their feet in the bobbing waters of the workplace. There are a lot of people who fall through the gaps between those broad options but for the most part, university works for those who go. And yet we seem actively determined in England to make it as expensive and off-putting an experience as possible.
It’s now no longer just three years of making bolognese in a wok, having a short and intense friendship with a French girl, pound-a-pint night, and writing essays in the cool dark fog of the night. Now the decision you might make at 17 about university has to matter, every single ounce of it; the entire thing has become a lifelong mortgage calculation in which your future self is in the balance. Nice two As and a B at A-level you’ve got there … it would be a shame if the only viable way to do anything with them is to take on tens of thousands of pounds of ever-growing debt, which we change the terms on as and when we want to.
This won’t be the last student loan disaster and it isn’t yet the most significant, but it will be a footnote on the eventual Wikipedia page about how the whole higher education system in England collapsed while Nick Clegg watched on from California in VR goggles. In the past few years, the politics of England has become an ever sharper war between the old, who did fine, and the young who never really will, and this sort of unthinking generational punishment is just par for the course now. A reminder if you haven’t dipped into the hell of the job market recently: you need a degree just to qualify for an entry-level job doing filing in a bleakly lit office in any major city in the UK. How about we change that? If not, we’ll just move ever closer to a system where only the 7,000-odd graduates from Oxford and Cambridge every year are ever allowed to do anything, and the rest of us can just till the fields.
Joel Golby is a writer for the Guardian and Vice, and the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism