Growing poor by degrees
"I'm not quite sure how we're going to find the money. We're living hand to mouth anyway,'' says Robin Atkinson, a middle school teacher in Wimborne, Dorset, married to a nurse. Their eldest son is starting his medical degree course at Manchester University in October.
The cost of a three-year degree course for a student living away from home is now estimated at about #163;20,000, including tuition fees. Parental investment in their children's education has soared by #163;37 million since last year to #163;440 million, according to a Barclays Bank survey. The average debt for a third-year student is #163;3,500, the survey says.
The main problem for teachers, particularly if they are married to other teachers or public sector workers, is that they don't have any spare cash to save for their children's education.
Bernadette Hopkins, a colleague of Robin Atkinson's, and her probation-officer husband were dismayed to find that they would have to contribute to their daughter's tuition fees. As their joint income is only about #163;33, 000, they had assumed that they would be exempt.
Teachers are no better informed about the costs of higher education than any other group of parents, according to Bridget Patterson, head of the sixth form at Northgate High School, Ipswich, who run seminars to guide parents of sixth-formers through the maze of the funding system. ''It took parents a long time to grasp that tuition fees will be means-tested."
She says the main concern of parents is that children should not have to start their working lives in debt. Like Mrs Patterson and her husband, many are prepared to make sacrifices. The Pattersons are giving their youngest son, who has just finished his first year at Salford University, the equivalent of a full grant.
But some parents are steering their children away from university because of the cost.
"Certain students who would have gone on to higher education in the past are not doing so because of parental pressure,'' Mrs Patterson says. ''Parents are now questioning the value of a degree if it is going to cost them so much. "
Robin Atkinson admits his feelings have hardened. ''As far as my younger son is concerned, if he hasn't got a specific career in mind, there seems very little point in him going to university just to broaden his horizons."
Large numbers of Mrs Patterson's pupils are now opting for courses in computer studies and business studies which apparently offer a better chance of a job when they have graduated.
There is also an increasing trend for pupils to choose the nearest university so that they can live at home.
Mrs Hopkins' daughter, who hopes to start an art foundation course, will have to do the first year at a local college, otherwise her parents will be unable to help fund her four-year degree.
Bridget Patterson regrets the changes. ''What is the point of getting a degree if you don't broaden your mind and widen your experience?'' she asks.
Another new constraint on students is having to work during term time to pay their debts. About one student in three earns money in this way, says the Barclays survey, a 5 per cent increase since 1997.
Anne Dunn, who teaches at Northgate High School, says her daughter may be forced to get a term-time job when she starts at Reading University. She has been working part-time in a bank since the beginning of the sixth form.
"Working during vacations is fine, but I don't want her to waste valuable study time on a part-time job,'' Mrs Dunn says. Unfortunately, many students will have no alternative.
FAMILY PLANNING:HOW THEY HOPE TO COPE
The Atkinsons are not sure how they are going to find the #163;70 a week they need to give their eldest son.
The couple's basic income is about #163;39,000, but Mrs Atkinson is working nights to boost her earnings. They have a younger son in the upper sixth who is expecting to start university next year.
"We already have considerable credit card debts. We've been trying to use our cards to supplement our income, just to support the two boys through the sixth form,'' Robin Atkinson says. "With two growing boys, our weekly food bill alone is #163;150. The night work my wife does is putting a lot of strain on our marriage, but we can't deny our son the chance to do medicine."
Fortunately, their son has already saved more than #163;1,000 from holiday jobs, but he will still have to get a term-time job to make ends meet.
Mr Atkinson believes students training for the caring professions should have all their tuition fees refunded, and their loan debts cancelled. He says students who are going to put something back into society deserve a better deal.
* "Funding three children through higher education is an awesome prospect, " says Bernadette Hopkins.
''My daughter will have to take out a student loan; there is just no other way. We are both very keen for her to do a degree. It's part of what we expected for her. We certainly wouldn't want to discourage her."
Mrs Hopkins has recently returned to work after bringing up the couple's three children.
She is on a part-time, temporary contract and says she and her husband can't afford to contribute towards her daughter's maintenance, even though they are worried about the debts she will incur.
"The loan repayments will probably kick in just when she is wanting to settle down and buy her own home," Mrs Hopkins says. "By encouraging her, are we putting a noose around her neck?" Although they have always supported Labour, Mr and Mrs Hopkins say they feel very disillusioned with the Government.
"I think people will back off from going to university because of the cost, particularly from working-class backgrounds,'' Mrs Hopkins says.
* Anne Dunn has already helped one child through a degree course at Durham University. Now her younger daughter is hoping to start a degree in English at Reading University.
"We haven't dared think about it yet,'' says Mrs Dunn, whose husband works in a bank. ''our elder daughter borrowed from us rather than saddle herself with debt, but the younger one will have to take out a loan."
The Dunns have a joint income of about #163;44,000; they have already eaten into their savings to support their elder daughter through university.
"This should be a golden time of fewer responsibilities for us as our children leave home, but it's not working out like that," says Mrs Dunn.
But the couple are planning to help their younger daughter with the cost of books and accommodation.
They are hoping she will get a place in a hall of residence as they think it will be easier for her to budget if she doesn't have to work out the cost of food. Her grandmother may also help with a small monthly allowance.
A CREDIT TO THEIR EDUCATION
The NUS estimates that the total expenditure of a student outside London for this academic year will be #163;5,476. For a student in London, this will be #163; 6,888.
* Students starting university this term will be eligible for a grant of up to #163;1,225 and a loan of #163;3,145 in London. New students outside London will be eligible for a maximum grant of #163;810 and a loan of #163;2,735.
* The maintenance grant is to be scrapped next year. It will then only be available to students who started courses in 1997 or earlier.
* New loans are to be launched in 19992000; 25 per cent of a student loan will then be means-tested.
* New students this autumn will start repaying their loans after they graduate. Employers will collect the repayments for the Inland Revenue when gross income exceeds #163;10,000 a year. Repayments will be suspended as soon as a graduate's income falls below this.
* Students starting full-time higher education courses below first degree level will be liable for tuition fees of up to #163;1,000 a year. Parents will be expected to pay something towards the fees if their residual income is more than #163;16,945 in the year before the student goes to college. Residual income means gross income minus deductions for things such as mortgages and pensions.
The DFEE says a residual income of #163;16,945 generally translates into a gross income of about #163;23,000.
There is a sliding scale for paying tuition fees. If the parents' residual income exceeds #163;27,000 they will pay the full tuition fee. Students who took a gap year between 19971998 will be exempt from tuition fees.
* 'Financial Support for Students' is available from the Department for Education and Employment.