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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 179 Contents

Socialist Review, October 1994

Notes of the Month


Debt drop outs


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Where have all the students gone? So asks the Times Higher Education Supplement as it attempts to explain the shortfall in student numbers at the beginning of the academic year. At the time of writing there were still 7,000 places to be filled on university courses compared to this time last year, and the number of university students looks set to fall for the first time in 20 years.

The Tories claim to have opened up education for all, yet this has been done on the cheap with cuts in funding that have created conditions of poverty and overcrowding. The cost of going to further education is forcing many potential applicants to have second thoughts. Students simply cannot afford to go straight from school to college without having time off to try and save some money to get themselves at least part of the way through their course without such a massive burden of debt. And many are clearly weighing up the cost of further education with the ‘benefit’ of a degree, but with many years in debt.

Even the Economist admits that Tory cuts are the main reason for the shortfall in student numbers: ‘Students’, they say, ‘regularly leave university with debts of £2,000–£3,000, a fact that may help to explain the recent downturn in applications.’

The facts about student hardship, however, are more harrowing than this as a recent report from the National Union of Students (NUS), Values For Money, revealed. The average level of debt for those students aged 17 to 21 was £2,476, for students aged 22 to 26 it was £4,856, and this rose to £6,105 for those aged 26 and over. The survey showed that 87 percent of students are worried about finance and 39 percent believe themselves to be in serious financial difficulty, with one in five considering dropping out of their course because of it. Reports from some colleges at the beginning of term reveal that many students are simply not turning up because of the prospect of years of debt.

On top of this comes a rise in hall fees for 1994–95 with many colleges charging more in accommodation costs than students actually receive for a grant. A student in halls at Leeds University, for example, will have to find £500 on top of a full grant just to pay the accommodation fees for a year (and this is before a penny is spent on living expenses). And over the next two years the student grant will be reduced to its 1983 level. As the NUS concludes:

‘Even after taking the maximum student loan of £1,150 students will not have enough to eat, buy books and travel home to visit their parents ... The inevitable result will be that students will be forced to drop out of university, and many potential students from poorer backgrounds will be deterred by debt.’

Coming on top of overcrowded lectures, poor facilities and lack of books there is a potentially explosive situation developing in the colleges.

This is accompanied by reports of massive handouts to those at the top. A storm has erupted at Huddersfield University where it’s reported that the vice-chancellor will take a £500,000 handout when he retires in January. This includes three years salary, a car and BUPA health care for life. And earlier this month it was revealed that the head of the Student Loans Company (which pursues students for years over their debts) had such ‘perks’ as pop concert tickets, gifts of perfume and expensive lunches, and was granted a 17.5 percent increase in pension payments. Such lavish expenditure and wealth at the expense of poor students will do nothing to dampen the bitterness felt by many as they go to college this month.

Last year we saw the glimmer of a fightback against these when some students occupied their colleges against the cuts. The increase in student hardship for those who have decided to make the sacrifice to go to college could make the situation much more explosive this year. Already the NUS has been forced to call a national demonstration against the cuts for 9 November – the first time for many years it has called a national demonstration before term started.

It could be the beginning of a fightback by students that will turn the tide of Tory cuts. All this could spill into the general anti-Tory mood that exists at the moment and fuel rising working class discontent.

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