Opinion: The UK government has a responsibility to ease crippling student debt

Opinion: The UK government has a responsibility to ease crippling student debt
London/UK- November, 4th 2015 : Students protest fees, and debt, asking government to reduce fees and make education free. 'Tax the Rich'. Source: Katherine Da Silva/Shutterstock

The global higher education market is estimated to be worth around £1.5 trillion (US$1.9 trillion). That’s one hefty contribution towards a burgeoning global economy progressing at an unprecedented pace.

While public perception on the worth of higher education has a history of fluctuation, enrolments generally prevail. But in the UK, the plight of the international student remains constant and strong, tarnishing a formerly elite reputation the nation may struggle to win back.

Amid a string of stringent visa rules, fee increases and Brexit fears, the UK international student community feels under attack. Restrained by a noose of political and financial hardship, non-domestic students are turning away from the international education hotspot, with Australia set to overtake the UK as the world’s second-best study destination.

International student enrolments across the region have stagnated over the past two years. The number of students from non-EU countries has suffered a downward trend since 2015, and while many reports cite a six percent growth in EU applicants, it’s worth noting that this data relates to academic year 2015-16 – before the EU referendum took place in June 2016.

But the biggest influence in this shift is probably financial. The recent National Student Money Survey 2018 from money advice site Save the Student revealed that students spend £770 a month at university, with the first and current term winding up the most expensive.

This sets every UK student – domestic and non-domestic – up for debilitating debt, with the 2012 fee hike forcing home applicants to fork out £9k (US$11,695) a year while international students pay at least £12k (US$15,593).

Freshers across the country could be hurtling towards financial hardship by Christmas, Save the Student warns. Upfront charges paired with regional differences in Student Finance mean new students can’t cover living costs, with many finding expenses to be far higher than they expect or can afford.

Costs are particularly high at the start of the year, when students face sizable charges to secure housing (deposit and fees), on top of travel passes, society memberships, textbooks and Freshers’ Week events – all of which are considered necessities and rites of passage in the UK student experience.

Failure to plan for these unavoidable extras often leads to long-term money woes, especially if there’s limited funding to fall back on. For domestic students, the average Maintenance Loan instalment is £600 a month (US$782) – £170 (US$222) short at the best of times.

But their international counterparts receive little to no government funding.

Source: Save the Student

“I pay £20,000 each year for my course because I’m an international student and I don’t think it’s fair to pay more than double,” Domenico Rutgard, a non-domestic student currently in the UK, told Save the Student.

“I’ve been buying tickets for events and selling them 20 percent more expensive. Also I refuse to go out much and I do my laundry every 17 days so that’s how I’ve been surviving. It’s not easy at all.”

Unsurprisingly, many UK students end the academic year stressed and struggling to get by:

  • 78 percent worry about making ends meet – and 46 percent say it affects their mental health
  • 61 percent of Maintenance Loan recipients claim it’s not enough to live on

And while the Maintenance Loan simply doesn’t cover costs, students outside London face an additional challenge. London weighting means those living and studying in the capital can apply for a larger amount – yet students across the UK are buckled with pretty much identical expenses.

“As an international student at my uni, I pay between GBP 13k-14k per year,” Ramona Müntener, a Swiss national and first year student of Economics, Finance and International Business at Oxford Brookes told Study International. “That would be an estimated average of GBP 41,000 in total,” she adds.

When asked whether she ever worries about mounting student debt, Ramona said: “Yes and no. Yes, because I am currently living off my savings that I put aside over the last six months. I started saving in March 2018 and had CHF 500 in my account and at some point I will have used all the money. No, because I have an amazing network of family and friends who support me emotionally and financially.”

NEWCASTLE, UK – DEC 9: UK university and college students protest against increase in tuition fees and education cuts on the day of vote in the Parliament on December 9, 2010 in Newcastle. Source: Smart7/Shutterstock

But not all are as lucky as Ramona, with 30 percent of Save the Student’s survey respondents claiming they receive little parental support.

As a member of the first unlucky cohort to be lumbered with this fee, I don’t just understand, but echo the simmering frustration coming from the nation’s current students and recent graduates.

I worked three part-time jobs through my entire student career, and in my stint as a waitress at a popular chain restaurant, I worked alongside second and third year students at the very same university, taught by the very same teachers, covering the very same curriculum – only with the pleasure of paying £6k (US$7,829) less than me.

Before I even finished my undergraduate degree, I worked as a full-time intern for a national media agency and have been building my career, solidly, for the past 3.5 years. The Money Saving Expert’s Student Finance Calculator tells me I’ll repay £28,290 until my debt is wiped in 30 years, but this figure will soar with the breakneck rate of inflation.

This estimate assumes my salary will have grown to £108,050 (US$140,850) by the time my debts would clear, and though this sounds appealing, I’m under no illusion that it’s likely to happen. But in this idyllic world, I would be free of my student debts by the time I turned 51. What a time to be alive…

Boomers – call me a ‘Snowflake’ if you like; bask in the glory of your student debt-free legacy. You don’t know how it feels to enter the working world, fresh-faced and dewy-eyed, already shackled by the chains of debt. To what do I owe this burden? A desire to perfect my craft and fulfil my lifelong ambition.

I entered adult life with a lack of trust in the UK government, and again that’s something I’m not sure they’ll be able to win back. But my anger and frustration is overshadowed by a great amount of respect and empathy towards the UK’s international students. These ambitious learners bring passion and resilience, on top of contributing £25 billion (US$32,595 billion) to the UK economy.

Think about that for a moment. What happens if the government continues to disillusion and drive out this global pool of talent? It won’t just be culturally devastating, it will leave a huge, lasting dent in the country’s economic progression.

Prospective students need an incentive. Prestigious rankings from Times Higher Education and QS still deem UK institutions as world-class, but learners are wise to the prospect of a cut-throat job market and more so, crippling debt.

International students are losing hope in UK higher education. If I were in their position, I too would seek a cheaper, more viable alternative. Frankly, could you blame me?

*Some names and identifying details have been changed 

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