Whatever MSPs decide to do about university tuition fees, this year's freshers will have to pay. Julie Morrice finds them confused about loans and fees, yet surprisingly sanguine
The Scottish student used to set off for university carrying a sack of meal to feed him throughout the term. Today's students may get more varied fare, but penny-pinching is once again the lot of the undergraduate.
For the class of 99, grants and free tuition are a fast-fading memory: students matriculating this autumn will be entitled to loans only, and will have to make a means-tested contribution of up to pound;1,000 a year towards tuition fees. Even if the Lab-Lib Dem coalition leads to fees being dropped, students are unlikely to benefit before 2001.
"The media suggests that students at Edinburgh University spend their time going to balls and having dinner parties, but 90 per cent of my time is spent countering student hardship," says Jenny Ferguson, vice-president for representation of the Edinburgh University StudentAssociation.
"The fact that the university runs its own on-campus job centre tells you everything you need to know. Seventy-seven per cent of students in Scotland are in part-time jobs."
Edinburgh University senate has recently agreed that students who complete only one or two years of a degree course should be awarded a certificate or diploma of education. Ferguson says: "It is a recognition from the university that a significant number of people leave due to financial hardship and may come back to complete a course after working for a year or two. The pattern of full-time education is changing.
"I'm glad that when I had to make decisions about universities and courses it was less complicated. Now you have to decide at the beginning of the first term how big a loan you want to take out, and if you find you need more you can't then go back and borrow more.
"You have to decide whether to pay tuition fees all at once or in instalments - and if you pay in instalments, will you therefore have to pay an administration fee? It goes on and on."
At St Thomas of Aquin's RC High School in Edinburgh, sixth-year pupils planning to go touniversity after the summer are surprisingly sanguine about the financial implications.
"That's just the way it is for us," says 17-year-old Lindsay Hall. "There's no point in kicking and screaming. That won't change anything."
The prospect of working in shops and bars while studying for exams does not faze these youngsters. Indeed, most are already working at weekends or in the evenings.
None of the pupils I spoke to felt that money had played a significant part in their decision to go on to higher education, but approximately three-quarters of the group are planning to stay in Edinburgh for their course. One explained: "A lot of people have to stay at home now, even if their local university doesn't have the course they really want to do. On top of fees and everything, paying for a flat is just too much."
The year out between school and university, often regarded as a worthwhile step into the real world, has also been a casualty of cold, hard economics. "I wanted to go to Australia or America and see the world a bit, but I can't afford a year out," says Lindsay.
The school has organised a speaker from the Royal Bank of Scotland and a visit from some university students, but no one in the sixth year seems at all sure how much, if anything, they will have to pay for tuition, or from whom they will get their loan. There is confusion over the difference between a student loan and a bank overdraft, and some annoyance at means-testing based on parental income - especially when some parents are unlikely to fork out.
Eilidh Morgan plans to go to Dundee to study dentistry with a pre-dental year, which will add up to six years at university. "I looked at courses before I thought about the finances, but just last month I began to panic and tried phoning places because we weren't getting a lot of info."
She phoned the Student Awards Agency in Glasgow who put her on to a number "in Manchester or somewhere" - who, in turn, gave her a number in Edinburgh. "I phoned it twice and kept getting the fire station.
"But eventually my Mum got through and got some useful information. My parents areseparated, but the means-testing will take into account myfather's income. I don't think that's fair."
Jenny Ferguson says: "Students are expected to manage jobs, studies and finances like responsible adults, yet it is the parents who are means-tested. Employers are expecting students to have broadened their curriculum and gone on field trips; the pressures are piling up. Yet the welfare safety net is not there for students.
"We need to be treated as adults in the same way as the rest of society."
* As of this year, the top 25 per cent of a student loan will be means-tested * The maximum loan is pound;3,635 for a year, or pound;2,875 for those living at home * 70- 75 per cent of students take out loans, usually the maximum * Loans are paid in three instalments. The first cheque is not available until the student matriculates * From next April, loan repayments will be collected directly from graduates' salaries. Repayment is on a sliding scale. If the graduate is earning less than pound;10,000 he or she will pay nothing. If salary is pound;13,000, the repayment will be 9 per cent of pound;3,000, ie pound;270. Any outstanding loan will not be written off until the graduate reaches retirement age * A booklet, Financial Support for Students in 19992000, is available from the Department for Education and Employment. Call 0800 731 9133 or see website http:www.dfee.gov.uk Student Loans Company Ltd 0800 405010. Student Awards Agency for Scotland 0131 476 8212
'I do a 35-hour working week'
Name Paul Welsh Age 17 Results Four As and one B at Higher; taking Sixth Year Studies, Physics and Chemistry this year Course Paul wants to study medicine at Glasgow or Dundee Accommodation Halls of residence Family Father is a finance clerk, mother manager of an arrears company. Paul is the eldest of three and the first in his family to go to university Finances "I think I'll probably get pound;30-40 a week from my parents while I'm at university. I'll have to pay the tuition fees myself. I've been saving money since I was 16. My parents think 'Go to university, but don't come scrounging to us'."
Paul expects to take out themaximum loan. "On loans and tuition fees we're getting differentfigures from everywhere" Job Already has a job in a nursing home, working up to 35 hours a week. "I'm doing a full-time job and fitting school around it." He plans to work all summer and hopes to make pound;1,500 before starting university then expects to get a part-time job during term.
'I may have to work in a shoe shop'
Name Lindsay Hall Age 17 Results Four As and one B at Higher; taking SYS physics, chemistry and biology this year Course Lindsay wants to study biology, specialising in immunology, at either Glasgow or Newcastle Accommodation "I think myparents are going to get me a flat" Family Both parents are teachers. Lindsay is the eldest of three children, and head girl at St Thomas's. Her brother is planning to go to university the year after her Finances Planning to take out a student loan. "I expect I'll have to pay fees" Job Lindsay works in Safeways as a cashier. She hopes to get a full-time job "in an office or a bank or something" over the summer and then get a shop job during term-time. "I could get a transfer to another branch of Safeways or I could work in a shoe shop. Bar work would be difficult... I do need my sleep."
'My parents have been saving up for college since I was young'
Name Michael Cernicchiaro Age 17 Results One B and two Cs at Higher; taking Higher English, geography and physical education this year Course Wants to study architecture at Edinburgh College of Art."I've always been fascinated by art, and architecture seems to be the best way of making money out of art" Accommodation Michael will stay with his parents Family Father and mother run a fish and chip shop. Michael is the eldest of three children. He admits: "My parents want me to go tocollege more than I do" Finances "My parents have been saving since I was young. I don't know yet if I'll have to pay tuition fees" Job Michael may have other fish to fry but is still expected to help out in the family business. At present he works all day Saturday and Wednesday evenings.