A degree of anxiety

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
For Carole Stacey the good news was that her son had got into university. The bad news was that, as a single mother, she didn't have a clue how she was going to pay for his studies

My son has just started a four-year engineering degree course. He is a bright, intelligent, sensible lad (he doesn't know I'm describing him like this) who has worked hard, with quite a bit of nagging from Mum, for the A-level grades needed to get to the university of his choice. I imagine most new undergraduates are, like him, experiencing mixed emotions of excitement and trepidation.

Everything should be hunky-dory. But behind the congratulations and the cheapo champagne lies a deep anxiety. I have heard too many stories from friends about how expensive it is to maintain a child through university - and most of these stories come from two-parent families. As a single parent all I can do is cross my fingers and hope. Not very scientific, I know, but all other solutions have been considered and discounted. They are as follows: u My son could get a job instead of going to university. What a waste and what a shame.

u My son could attend a local university. There was only a handful of courses that my son could have applied for, and our own university does not offer the course he wants.

u I could get a better-paid job. Not much chance of that at my age, though I am looking. Neither can I afford to stop what I'm doing to retrain for a better-paid job.

u I could take on more work. I already have two jobs, one of which requires preparation at home. Two jobs, combined with maintaining a family, a house, pets and a car (which I need to get me to my second place of employment), being accountant, clerk and financial wizard, as well as trying to fit in some sort of social life, sends the stress levels soaring in a normal working week.

There is a limit to the amount one can do without going under completely. Thank goodness I have good friends who understand when I don't see them for weeks on end.

u I could try to get more money from the absent Dad. Any attempts - hints, suggestions or direct requests - have been met with a purposeful vagueness, but you never know! Yes, I receive maintenance, but it does not stay long enough in my account for us to feel much benefit. All this, while father enjoys life with his new partner, on two full-time salaries.

u A student grant? A full grant does not even cover the charges for the halls of residence for the first year.

u A student loan? Yes, right from the start. I will probably get used to the idea, although borrowing money was not something I grew up on.

So, my son will go to university and, in true English style, I will send him the home-made fruitcakes, the bags of pasta and tins of tomatoes, the winter woollies and the phonecard, but I cannot provide him with extra money. When he goes I will miss the after-dinner Sunday evening debates between a scientist son, a humanities mother and a Jane AustenMr Darcy-besotted daughter. I will miss the cups of tea made for me when we arrive home at 1.30am after our respective nights out, and I will even miss the deplorable mess of his bedroom with the mugs (my best ones) of mould-covered cold coffee. Meanwhile, I will carry on doing what I can to make ends meet.

I know the scene I describe is familiar to many single parents and to low-income families. My son should not have to withdraw from university mid-course for financial reasons. If he does it will be a great pity, and I hope that day never comes. If my daughter declines to enter or leaves higher education for financial reasons that would be a great shame, too.

I'm going to keep my fingers crossed.

Carole Stacey is an art department technician in a sixth form college. In the evenings she is an adult education tutor of calligraphy.

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