Student grants and the luxury of freedom

I remember summer 1994.

Wet Wet Wet were no.1 in the charts for what felt like for ever, the weather was predictably unpredictable and my wardrobe was in desperate need of some serious investment, but the thing I remember most about the long summer was the uncertainty. I had  finished my A-levels and was now waiting to see what would happen next. It was the first time in my life I had faced an absolute unknown. Before then, my life had followed order, a comforting, unchanging schedule: autumn term, Christmas, spring term, Easter, summer term, holidays, six weeks of boredom, autumn term. And so on, and so on, for what felt like centuries until suddenly,  the jarring, scratching sound of the needle being wrenched from the record, the cycle broken. Summer 1994.

All those years of being told my best bet was to get out of my hometown, I’d never really believed I’d be able to do it. I still felt like a child, and going to university seemed like such a grown-up thing to do. It felt like a path that belonged to someone else. I ordered stacks and stacks of prospectuses from places I could never have hoped to get an offer from, and leafed through them with the bemused curiosity of the Queen Mother seeing a public lavatory for the first time. How quaint, I thought, that they all go away to, oh it says here to ‘read’ subjects – I didn’t even know what that meant. They were all impossible people, faces and dental work and hairstyles that belonged only in the glossy pages of a brochure. It didn’t seem real. What would I even study? I didn’t know what I wanted to be, or indeed who I actually was, at that moment. I would shut my eyes and try to imagine it, to see myself there, but saw only blackness, or the garish stripes of my bedroom wallpaper burned onto my retina. Looking back at this now feels like a season five character watching clips of a pilot episode, when their character was played by someone else. I see his face and can even close my eyes and feel his bony back resting against his headboard while he flicks cigarette ash into the little bowl he made in pottery class aged 11, but inside his head feels like a mystery.

But I remember being frightened. I had to get away from there. I knew it. I wasn’t from a well-off family; I saw what happened to children like me. They had to go off and get a job they didn’t like, because staying on at school meant you were even less experienced and, because this is Yorkshire in 1994, less respected than those who’d quit at 16 and started at the very bottom. Add into this my slightly… I don’t know, what am I calling this here? How do I describe my 18-year-old self without proving the bullies may have had a point after all? I wasn’t like the others, I knew that. Call them delusions of grandeur, or airs and graces, or a superiority complex if you must, but every day I felt like an alien that had been dropped in the middle of this place like some sick joke. My family were, depending on who you spoke to, fiercely proud of my intelligence and so-called refinement, and deeply resentful of it. My aptitude was almost a curse; I was mocked for it, the butt of family jokes. My uncles, with nary a qualification between them, distrusted me, I made them feel uncomfortable. That’s how it was if you weren’t like the others. The others wondered why; the others took your individuality as an attack.

“Don’t stay here, like I did,” my mum would always, always say, after a parents’ evening or while reading a school report. And yet I worried too about leaving her all by herself. Would she be OK for money? Should I stay and get a job and help her out. Summer 1994 was not, for me, the coming-of-age, fresh-faced look to the future it was for many of my middle-class schoolmates. I bit my nails down to the nub and worried about what might happen. If successful, I would be the first of my family to go to university. My chest heaved with both the scale of what I could achieve and the pressure on me to achieve this.  Both families were divided over what my going to university would mean for them. It would be a good reflection on them that I’d made it, of course, but the trouble with reflections is you can see yourself in them. Some of them were not ready to face that mirror. One part of me thought I owed my parents this one, my only chance to give them glory, to do it first, be a trailblazer. The other part of me, however, thought it might be better if I didn’t get in.

I did get in, after a slight nightmare that I’ll no doubt come back to, and then the worry really started. First of all, I was going. There would be no hiding from adulthood now; it was coming for me, and I had about three weeks to get my head round it. I also had about three weeks too work out how I was going to survive. There were acres and acres of forms. Student loans had only just come in and were supposed to ‘top up’ your grant – how fucking twee and hilarious that sounds now, I was living in clover and never even realised. Because of my mum’s low earnings, I would qualify for a full grant, but the ‘full’ here was misleading. This was the scrawniest definition of fullness. It was a small amount, payable over three terms. I’d have to pay for my accommodation, obviously, and as there were no kitchen facilities in the university halls, I’d have to eat in the refectory, or I could rent privately. I was an embryo standing at the controls of a Boeing 747; I was terrified. The accommodation was so much money, although the food was included, how much would I have left? And what was this about a loan? I couldn’t get the loan. The word brought to mind loan sharks and bailiffs ripping doors off hinges, sights I’d seen many a time on the estate I grew up on. Loans were dangerous, my mum said, fear them. Don’t get one. “But you must go,” she said, “it’s your only chance.” And I thought about it, and I thought about what I’d do if I stayed, and I thought of being left behind while everyone else went away.

Because that’s what growing up in a poorer family is about, in a way – being left behind. Trips you can’t go on, the latest trainers you can’t have, the quirks and perks of being middle-class you never get to see until you have your face pressed up against the glass and are peering into someone else’s life. Drinks cabinets, breakfast rooms, furniture that is supposed to be old and look dilapidated, paintings on the wall, wooden floors, full fridges. You are always behind, trying to catch up, you are othered, you are less. My delusions of grandeur, my determination to be someone else would finally be quashed right here, in summer 1994. I would assimilate, I’d acquiesce, I would finally become one of them. My spirit would disappear, all because I was too frightened to get into debt, and too insecure to dream I deserved the chance to go.

But while I still felt like a child, I found enough will in me to go. I would try to avoid the overdraft (lasted three months), I would refuse the loans (lasted until the very end of my first year, incredibly) and I would do it on a shoestring. I would go, because I had this grant of £2,400 and it was the biggest fortune I’d ever been handed, but it was not a fortune made up of riches, it was a fortune of opportunity, of mobility.

£2,400. It wasn’t a lot then; it’s even less now. There was also the added thrill that the Conservatives had pledged to cut it by 10% every year, the difference being made up in loans. My dad bunged me a few quid when he could, and I worked here and there, and it was hard and I worried about money constantly, but knowing I had the grant, that it would always be there, always coming – albeit in reduced form year upon year – that kept me going. I didn’t see it as “free money”; it was freedom. Did I spend it on stupid, frivolous things? Sometimes, of course I did. It was a luxury I’d never had before – the opportunity for frivolity shouldn’t belong only to those who can afford it. Freedom should not be means-tested.

And now plans announced by the government earlier this year are coming into force. Students grants are over, even for the very poorest of families. Replaced by loans, which only ever existed to make up for shortfalls in grants, before becoming power-hungry and taking over altogether. George Osborne said that it was “unfair” taxpayers should pay for the education of someone who would “eventually earn more than them”. Putting aside the absolutely ludicrous assertion that graduates are in any way likely ever to earn more than someone in a half-decent job now, it seems that we’re only interested in “fairness” to these mythical taxpayers, rather than the unfair disparity between who can and cannot go to university.

Sure, everyone is ‘able’ to physically go because the loans cover all the fees and the space left by the grants, but would you go, if you knew you might be leaving around £30,000 in debt? Would you be sure it was worth it? Would you think you yourself were worth it? Could you, coming from a poor family were debt was a dirty word and even owing the milkman a couple of quid seen as a spiralling credit problem and a fate worse than death, imagine yourself borrowing – also a slur when you’re poor FYI, never borrow – such a colossal amount of money? How much pressure would you feel to make it work? While your richer classmates laughed it off and went merely to avoid getting a job and figuring out what to do with their lives – which, by the way, is a totally valid reason for going to university; life experience should not be underestimated – your time there would need value, you would have to come up with the goods. The richer kids get to enjoy their experience more, breezing through it with no money worries, just like competition winners, while you wait tables and say no to an invitation to Nando’s.

Would I still go? If summer 1994 were summer 2016 and I had all that in front of me, with the prospect of all that debt, would I do it? Could I? It’s been noted that since the introduction and increase tuition fees, there has been no significant drop-off in applications for university from children from poorer backgrounds. Riddle-me-ree indeed. So why is that? Perhaps the continued existence, until now, of grants has given them a safety net. Maybe the determination to better themselves, in the face of a government who warns them to live within their means yet encourages them to take on £20k of debt, is stronger than ever. Sure, they still go, but how is that experience for them? How do they feel, daily, thinking of the mountain of debt awaiting them, the pressure to succeed, the knowledge this is their one shot? Maybe it inspires them and drives them on to succeed. Or perhaps, in a much less Hollywood timeline, it eats away at them, compromising their mental health and any future potential, driving a wedge between them and their achievements, reminding them that life is about haves and have-nots.

Would I go? Yes, I would go. But every day would be like summer 1994. Gut-churning and heavy. Wet Wet Wet at no.1. And my summer 2016 would, I imagine, look very different indeed.

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Image: Flickr

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3 thoughts on “Student grants and the luxury of freedom”

  1. It’s a compelling story, but I hope very much that you would have gone if you were brought up in the same circumstances in 2016. Myself, I was lucky enough to be from a third generation of university-goers, with the level of income you might expect from that, so it was always in my destiny. It’s difficult to put myself in the shoes of someone for whom it was a real challenge to get there, or indeed a lifeline to escape somewhere else. Still, I had to take on lots of debt to go…I was the last year of the old Labour figures, so I took out loans of just over £20k. (Today’s students are more in the region of £40k).

    Still, having gone through the new system, I have to say that it’s kind of wrong to describe student debt as ‘debt’. It doesn’t affect your credit score, and one only pays incrementally according to my earnings. Of my mid-30k salary, it takes about £150 a month out of £2000.

    So, while I accept that it may be daunting for a kid who grew up in a toxic debt environment, in reality student debt doesn’t function in a prohibitive way. It might never leave you, but it’s much more a tax for those who do earn reasonably after getting a degree, rather than a debt. And I have to say, I am glad to have taken it out. My degree was my achievement, and I paid for it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and I’m confident that kids growing up in more challenging conditions than I ever faced will feel that accomplishment much, much more so.

    1. Hey, thanks for your comment. Some interesting points and it’s good to hear about someone else’s experience. But this is the thing, and it comes up a lot in discussions about it, I notice: it’s all very well saying theoretically it isn’t a ‘bad debt’, but it is money you owe. It is debt. You can think of it as a tax if you like, but it’s scant comfort. In the mind of someone from a poor background, leaving university owing £40,000 sounds both insurmountable and unthinkable. I can’t help but what the emotional consequences are. In saying everyone can, on the whole, ‘afford’ to go thanks to loans etc, we forget about the emotional cost of it all. Plus, removing grants will not raise revenue or save money, so who is this exercise set to benefit? It seems to me it’s a misguided attempt to create a level playing field that further disadvantages those already having a kick about on a very steep gradient.

  2. Coming from a family that really does look after the pennies (even if towards the end of my time living at home we didn’t have to) – the idea of 40k debt is terrifying. Even now, when my student loan is taken out of my pay it annoys the hell out of me me that I can’t put a couple of hundred quid into a savings account – or a pension. These are things that every other generation has taken for granted. This is something we should definitely fight for.

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