This piece from John McAuliffe discusses the effects of Tory education policies and offers his own story in experiencing this as an Irish student in Britain.
The Tory education tragedy and the profit-orientation of college
Education is often seen as the means to a prosperous future for any individual who sees it through to the end and obtains high-level qualifications. But we are increasingly being priced out of education as it makes its transition from a vital societal service to a profit-oriented business. I have personally faced the brunt of Tory education policies, and with it, the immense hardships that come with it.
People often argue that growing competition for better paying jobs demands higher levels of education, if not for the knowledge then at least for the credentials. This idea has become ingrained in our society which, under the Tory government, is seeing increased inequality, poverty, homelessness while employment is claimed to be rising, a fact Cameron boasts about in his weekly performance in PMQs. But that employment is reflected as positive only on paper. In reality, it is made up by former retirees who have been forced into such financial hardship that they resort to returning to employment, students who are taught that unpaid work placements are the key to getting the experience they need for a career, and those entrapped in the false security of zero-hour contracts. Remarkably, all of these forms of employment fail to alleviate the poverty of those who resort to them. We are told, of course, to look to all those high-paying jobs that the well educated currently hold, especially in financial services, so as to alleviate our concerns. And so, without much thought, I began my undergraduate in 2010 because that seemed to be the normal thing to do.
I was part of the first generation of students in Ireland who entered college under a new austerity regime, in which tuition fees were a new phenomenon. The policy was first implemented by the Fianna Fáil government, a political party that was expunged for their destruction of the Irish economy. Their successors, Fine Gael, exacerbated the problems with a "recovery" built on growing inequality similar to that in Britain. Rising tuition fees and shrinking grants have become a growing theme. The party has modelled their rule on the Tory party, a fact that was made obvious when they sent officials to meet with the key Tory strategists who delivered a surprising victory for the Conservatives in 2015 in preparation for this year's general election. Fine Gael were ridiculed for their "obsession" with "Cameron's playbook". The Tory-style policies resulted in their spectacular downfall in the election, where their ruling majority in government was wiped out. But students are still guaranteed increased education costs.
Despite the radical change in the education system, I fortunately still qualified for the old grant system that was in place before the austerity policies were implemented, meaning my tuition fees were covered by the state as long as I maintained a satisfactory level of performance and my household income remained below a certain level. The new grant system was imposed on students who came after me and left them with a lot less financial help. I didn't fully appreciate student hardships until I decided to take up post-graduate study in Aston University, Birmingham, where I recently completed my Masters in International Relations and Global Governance. But I was dependent upon receiving a scholarship, without which I would not have been able to attend the course. I graduated at the top of my class in my undergraduate in European Studies and was awarded the scholarship by Aston University, which was valued at £7,500. I was overwhelmed at how generous it was, making up more than the prior four years of state grant funding combined. I was quick to discover how inadequate such a vast sum was to be in the British college business.
I arrived in Birmingham in preparation for my studies having already put down £250 pounds on my student accommodation. I faced residential costs of over £5,700 for the year with the first 50% being paid by the end of October. This requirement was to wipe out the modest savings I brought with me. My tuition was another £4,500 on top of that (the 'home/EU' cost for postgraduate level in 2014/2015). For comparison, tuition for the same course has increased to £5,250 for the 2015/2016 academic year. I knew in advance that I would have to work and study simultaneously to meet my financial obligations. At a glance, I could see my scholarship would cover my tuition and dent my accommodation, but I would be left with a £2,700 gap to fill on top of my cost of living. Despite falling into the 'home/EU' category of students, I did not qualify for the student loans programme because I was not a British citizen, leaving employment as my only option.
I managed to secure a job as part of the Christmas staff in HMV. I had hoped to start in October, shortly after I arrived to Birmingham, but despite a positive interview and being assured I would have a job, I began at the end of November and was not kept on after January, nor was any of the temporary staff. Part-time work was the only available option for Christmas staff and my searches elsewhere led to naught, so I embraced the work out of necessity and pushed to maximise my hours. The work helped me sustain a life of poverty and pay off an additional £700 from my remaining fees by January. Fortunately, through some impassioned negotiation with the financial officers at my university, I managed to swap the first 50% instalment of accommodation fees in October with the second instalment of 25%, originally due in January and allow my scholarship to be depleted with the first payment. I was then faced with the £2,700 remainder. By January, I scarcely met the second instalment.
In the new year, newly out of work and out of funds, my life of poverty was set to deepen. The rest of the year was characterised by endlessly seeking work and meeting assignment deadlines. The latter was more successful than the former. Work was scarce, but my dire position led me to successfully enter a position as fundraiser for my university, in which my task was to raise funds for scholarships intended to help financially struggling students. By talking to countless alumni who have built a successful career over the years, I found out a startling misconception of what the Tory government has been saying all along. All those people to whom they pointed as representative of the successes of British education policies and now have good careers did not pay tuition at all during their time in university and in fact became successful under Labour policies. In fact, it was the reverse. Many of those I spoke with told me how they received grants to encourage them to attend university, dating back from the most recent recipients to those many decades ago.
I graduated with my masters after a very tough year of hardships and, due to the lack of available work, was forced to return to my family home in Ireland with the very last of my funds. It was there that I decided to join the Labour Party and fight the malaise of education-for-profit so that I could soon return from my financial exile and make a life for myself.
During my time as a student, I saw brand new accommodation blocks, new blocks under construction, renovations all around campus, a new library and a new gym. Even the campus grounds themselves were newly landscaped. As beautiful and modern as much of it looked, it was not a reflection on the life I led behind the pretty facade and it did not improve my education. Quite the contrary. With all these new renovations came high cost and it was the student who paid for it. In the constant pursuit of work, my educational performance suffered. Having once attained the top grades in my class, my post-graduate was dotted with mediocre grades as well as exceptionally good, though the latter was rarer. But I learned a lot about the nature of the tuition-student loans system and equally much about how it is abused.
Students are leaving college with astronomical debt because the student loan system makes it very easy to simply borrow and spend all the way through college. The promise of not having to pay it back until you start earning at a particular level greatly consoles the student who may otherwise worry about debt, and as a result, masks the feeling of obligation to that debt. Debt then rises as borrowing is made easy. For this reason, I am partially thankful that I had no access to the debt system. I may have endured a short period of excruciating hardship, but countless students are due to discover that the 'well-paying job' is set to become a lot less well-paying when their debt eats into the earnings for years to come. They are under further duress now that the Tory government has reduced itself to role of debt collector, threatening students with prosecution if they miss payments. But there is another source of upwards pressure on the accruement of this debt, the universities and accommodation themselves.
Most universities in the country immediately opted for the maximum £9,000 tuition threshold as soon as they were eligible to do so. As a result, the students were forced to take on more debt and pass on the funds directly to the universities. The universities rapidly used the money in renovations, equipment and other investments to get up to scratch, but these were temporary necessities which the flood of funds has now satisfied. But the influx is ongoing, meaning universities have been left with increasing stocks of money that they don't know what to do with. They are now sitting on a £1.8 billion surplus. Students, on the other hand, are being unnecessarily left with huge debt. From my own experiences, I have seen how student accommodation is run more as a business than a service. Now that students can borrow huge amounts of money, the accommodation business has seen a chance to offset those gains by raising prices, in essence, getting their fair share of the student-debt pie. My own fees told me a lot. Having lived in student residences in Germany and Britain, I can compare the two. The former cost me approximately €2,100 for the full year, while as noted above, the latter cost me £5,700 for just over ten months. The difference between pounds and euro makes that sum even greater. My own scholarship, although extremely generous, was absorbed entirely and instantly by the most basic costs that have resulted from Tory educational policies.
Evidently, the point of being able to borrow is offset by astronomical prices which seek to maximise profit at the student's expense. In practise, the loan system resembles a government subsidising programme to businesses with the student as the middle-man and debt-bearer. Despite universities across the country having now used the funds to offset a build-up of problems over the years, they are now sitting on massive stockpile of funds accrued from students. Unless tuition policies and accommodation prices are not brought to a balance, students will be needlessly taking on huge debt to merely feed the profits of an education business that no longer delivers improvements to their education. However, such a rebalance is likely to remain elusive under the Tory debt-cult.