Graduate debt: Why I long for the days of maxi hair and grants

23rd October 2009 at 01:00

It was the batwing sleeves that finally did it for me. Up until then, I had convinced myself the jumper looked great, yet every time I lifted an arm there was the excess material flapping like a 1980s flashback. As the fashionistas say, if you can remember wearing it the first time around, don't go there again.

Style-alert deja vu. Batwings, mohair, leg warmers. Been there, worn those. Fluorescents, maxi hair, shoulder pads. I was a sorry sight circa 1982. I wanted to live the life in the television series Fame - yes, I did want to live for ever, and I wanted to leap along the corridors of college.

The 1980s. I went to university, the first member of my family ever to do so, the product of grammar-school selection. My family were horrified, telling me I had betrayed my working-class roots and that no good would come of it. That was more hurtful than the ridicule of being the only child on my estate who had to wear the straw boater summer hat and carry a briefcase to school.

I knew no one other than my teachers who had been to university. I was one of approximately 800,000 others also making that move pulling on the leg warmers (purple with glitter, in case you are wondering) and going off to get a degree.

Despite not having a clue about university, I was fairly carefree about the whole thing, safe in the knowledge that I would receive a grant and that the Government would pay the tuition fees. There would be no financial burden placed upon my family. Had there been, I would not have been able to go. It would never have entered my mind to do so.

When I was born, there were only 31 universities or colleges, so going was seen as an exceptional thing to be doing and certainly so for a girl from an inner-city housing estate. Fewer than 3 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds secured a degree then. In 2000, it was 41 per cent. How times have changed.

Of course, I was broke and overdrawn. I went on protest marches to London to demand higher grants. Wear yellow, the organisers told us, to show you are overdrawn, but so hard up was I that all I could afford was a pair of fluorescent yellow tights that made my legs look like skinny bananas. It didn't seem to matter as we walked behind a lorry on which The Jam were playing. How innocent all that now seems.

When New Labour appeared in 1997, I felt sure that the right to study for a degree would be safeguarded and that more people from challenging social backgrounds would be able to make the move, as I had done. After all, its mantra was to tell us repeatedly how committed it was to education and, more importantly, to equality of opportunity. So much for the rhetoric. Now it seems we have gone backwards in our thinking, much like fashion has.

The Confederation of British Industry wants students to bear the brunt of a proposed funding overhaul to deal with the growing crisis in university finance. Its solution is a triple whammy: increased loan interest; fewer grants; higher tuition fees. Indeed, it suggests raising fees to a staggering pound;5,000 per student. Not exactly going to help with equality of opportunity, is it? There may well be 309 universities and colleges offering a mind-boggling 50,000 courses, but there is no point offering choice to only a select few who can afford to go. Unequal learning opportunities won't create a more equal society, which is what I thought was the aim.

I appreciate that the economy is faced with crippling and growing national debt to the tune of trillions and that savings have to be made. But when that debt is increasing at the rate of pound;5,000 per minute, how will charging a student the same amount make a difference? Especially when 80 per cent of the 1.7 million jobs expected to be created by 2010 will require a degree-level qualification.

"What's an `ology, then, Miss?" Rupert asks bemusedly. My form is filling in their provisional A-level option choices. "Do I need an `ology for university?" No `ologies needed, I explain, and go through the new subjects they could study, such as sociology, philosophy and psychology. "What do I need for uni, then, Miss?"

Do I dare mention the stark truth? The average graduate debt is pound;20,000 plus, so dollops of dough seem to be the answer. And that is without thesuggested hike in tuition fees. I feel a sudden wave of nostalgia for my youth. It looks like the 1980s were not so bad after all. Now where did I put those leg warmers?

Julia Greenhough, English teacher, London.

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